Laughing at politics is important; it keeps you from crying. Fortunately we have no shortage of amusing material. Take the debate over religious liberty and obligations to the state.
A couple of years ago the country was consumed by arguments over whether the government should be able to force employers to provide insurance coverage for contraception. The Obama administration originally had tried to impose such an obligation on everyone, including religious institutions that object to contraception, but backed down—grudgingly—in the face of widespread outrage.
It didn't back down in other cases, however—such as Hobby Lobby. Eventually the Supreme Court ruled that the craft-store chain and other closely held corporations have at least a statutory religious-freedom right to exemption from the mandate as well. (Another case, concerning the Little Sisters of the Poor and several other similar parties, is on its way to the High Court now.)
The contraception mandate was imposed through Obamacare and was favored by abortion-rights groups, so opinions fell along predictable lines. Conservatives defended the right of devout employers to exemption. They argued that forcing people to violate the dictates of conscience when employees could easily get contraception by other means was tyrannical.
Liberals argued that companies had no business forcing their religious views down employees' throats, and that letting them do so would set a dangerous precedent. One deep thinker at The New Yorker wondered what would happen when the Taliban set up a closely held corporation so it could deny polio vaccines to children. Others pointedly cited Justice Antonin Scalia's view in an earlier case: that the "right of free exercise does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a valid and neutral law of general applicability." To hold otherwise, Scalia wrote, would invite "anarchy."
The two sides took the same stances in the various cases concerning whether bakers, photographers, and others who object to gay marriage on religious grounds should be forced to provide services for gay weddings. Conservatives said religious liberty trumped equal-protection guarantees; liberals said the opposite.
And then everybody switched.
Well, maybe not everybody— generalizations are dangerous. But plenty of people on the right started sounding like leftists, and plenty of those on the left started sounding like rightists. Why?
As Christianity Today reported recently, "US Churches Defy Federal Law and Offer Sanctuary to Illegal Immigrants." Federal immigration raids have prompted at least 50 churches across the country to take in scores of unlawfully present foreigners.
And boy, how the tunes have changed.
"U.S. Churches Offer Safe Haven For A New Generation Of Immigrants," reported NPR, which characterized the action as "civil disobedience." In November, it interviewed an undocumented immigrant who had been staying in a Texas church for 15 months. NPR really put the screws to her with hard-hitting questions about "how she would respond to people who say that sanctuaries like the ones she used shouldn't be allowed" ("When I hear these words of hate, I don't understand them," she answered) and what she thought of "the objection that she has violated the law" ("I don't really see it that way").
The liberal ThinkProgress—a sharp critic of Hobby Lobby—has likewise painted the movement in golden hues with a paean to its "activist roots." But it recognizes there are difficulties, too. For instance, "there is no single national organization dedicated to helping churches find a suitable sanctuary case." Gosh, if only there were!
Arizona congressman Raul Grijalva (D), who denounced the Hobby Lobby ruling as a giant step backward, thinks the sanctuary church movement is wonderful: "It speaks to faith and it speaks to the humanity of this issue."
Meanwhile, conservatives are not thrilled to see churches fulfill their God-given mission of helping the poor and downtrodden. "Do Churches Have a Responsibility to Turn over Illegal Immigrants?" asks Fox News, which helpfully introduces the topic by bringing up "the murder of Kate Steinle by illegal immigrant Francisco Sanchez."
That was also how conservative bomb-thrower Michelle Malkin introduced her own piece on the topic. "Churches across the country are brazenly thumbing their noses at our immigration laws," she argues. "And political phonies are doing nothing to stop them." Contrast that with Hobby Lobby. Of the chain's owners, she wrote, "Christian faith is at the heart of how they do business"—not like those "intolerant freaks at the White House." That piece was titled, "Thank you, Hobby Lobby."
Then there was Breitbart.com, which said Hobby Lobby was practicing "civil disobedience, consistent with America's highest traditions when moral issues are at stake… The Christian tradition of defying government commands to do something wrong goes back to the very birth of Christianity."
So what does Breitbart have to say about sanctuary churches? This: "A two-time border invader given sanctuary in a Portland church for months has become a cause celeb (sic) for Pacific North-leftists in spite of multiple criminal convictions. Francisco Aguirre-Velasquez, 36, isn't some well-intentioned immigrant pursuing the American Dream; he's a professional job-thief enabler hellbent on turning the United States into a socialist nightmare."
Yes, certain nuances—Hobby Lobby isn't a church, for example—make the parallels imperfect. But the principles remain the same. And for too many, those principles depend to a great extent on whose ox is being gored. So go ahead and laugh—or cry.
This article originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.