By William Mattox, USA Today, Sept. 13, 2012
Several years ago, some bohemians living in the capital city of Texas began distributing bumper stickers that read, "Keep Austin Weird."
It was their way of calling for the preservation of the community's sometimes-peculiar identity against cookie-cutter chains threatening to "McDonaldize" their hometown.
Now, I do not consider myself a weirdo, though my teenage kids probably have a different opinion, and I actually like some national chains. But I am convinced that we need to make the Austin campaign national: "Keep America Weird."
And the impetus for my thinking, oddly enough, is a recent flurry of initiatives intended to deny San Francisco parents the freedom to circumcise their sons, butchers in the Netherlands the freedom to sell kosher or halal food and American Catholics the freedom to practice (or, um, not practice) their beliefs about birth control.
Lest there be any doubt, I am not a Catholic. And I have been known to mock some Catholic beliefs. But this year, I got a sprinkling — heck, it was more like a full immersion — into Catholic teaching about all things sexual. And while I didn't come away fully transformed, neither was I "weirded out" in the way I expected.
You see, I'm a part of a weekly "skeptics book club" that meets to discuss different works. Over the past several years, our group has read and discussed everything from Christopher Hitchens' God is Not Great to Tim Keller's The Reason for God.
This spring, we read Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body. And while I didn't buy all that JPII had to say, I found myself often surprised and challenged by the pope's teachings. In the end, I came away with a newfound respect for many Catholic ideas, including some, such as celibacy, that I never hope to practice myself.
I mention all this because I worry that Obama's health care plan is doing to Catholics what those cookie-cutter national chains were threatening to do to Austin's bohemians: Rob them of their distinctive identity. Of their unique character. Of their freedom to be authentic.
Yes, I know Obama's contraception mandate provides an exception for Catholic churches. But it offers no such relief to those running Catholic schools, hospitals and charities who want to live out their faith (and follow their church's teachings) on more than just Sundays. In essence, the Obama administration's message to these Catholics, despite a cosmetic compromise, is akin to telling Austin's bohemians that they can dress like hipsters on the weekends so long as they behave like corporate shills Monday through Friday.
I know religious people sometimes do peculiar things. And I know that all of us, religious and non-religious, struggle to live up to the high-minded ideals we embrace. (I am reminded that after the "Keep Austin Weird" slogan got trademarked, a local satirist created the website "Make Austin Normal," on which he playfully poked fun at the bohemians' blatant commercialization of their anti-corporate slogan.)
Nonetheless, I think we do ourselves, and our neighbors, a great favor when we allow room for peculiar religious practices such as eschewing contraception, practicing male circumcision, eating kosher and avoiding commercial activity on Sundays. In promoting religious liberty, we allow others to be true to their consciences in ways we all want to be ourselves. And we permit ourselves to be challenged by others, including those who have better explanations for their curious beliefs than we ever imagined.
So, I hope that the Obama administration will rethink its "war on Catholics." And that San Francisco voters won't face a future ballot initiative on male circumcision. And that no act of Congress will ever demand the Amish start using automobiles or face a "Supreme Court tax" (otherwise known as a fine).
For when it comes to religious liberty, I'm a lot like the folks in Austin. Let's keep America weird. Because sometimes, religious practices that seem foolish to the "wise" actually point to profound truths we can discover if we're willing to listen.
And sometimes the real weirdos aren't the faithful, but the folks who put their hope in state-enforced uniformity.
William Mattox is a resident fellow at the James Madison Institute and member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors.