How Important is Public Support for Religious Freedom?

In a recent post, Mark observes that “the idea that religious freedom has special importance, and merits special protection, is deeply rooted in America’s self-image. (In recent surveys, large majorities even of secular Americans agree that religion has had a good influence on American life). . . . [T]he commitment to religious freedom is part of our social contract and I don’t think it’s going to fade away. If politicians try to make the ‘religious freedom is an anachronism’ argument, I suspect they will fail.”

I haven’t seen the surveys, but I trust that Mark is right about them, and I hope that his political instincts are right as well.  It may well be true that there is broad public support in this country for religious freedom.  This is a heartening observation, not just for its immediate political implications, but because I think this sort of tradition/ identity factor offers another potentially important rationale for religious freedom (and one not entirely unrelated to the badly named “social contract” rationale I suggested last week). The basic idea, I take it, goes something like this: Whether or not religious freedom reflects some sort of universal truth, it’s been central to our own political tradition, and it’s part of our national identity.  So we should respect religious freedom because that’s important to what makes us what we are.

Still, I would register a couple of related doubts, or qualifications.  First, even if support for religious freedom is widespread in this country, I wonder how deep it runs– in terms either of real commitment or of genuine understanding.  The reported frequent opposition to Muslim cultural centers or mosques (even in places other than “Ground Zero,” where maybe the issues are more complicated) gives some reason for doubt.  And although it’s not certain what the ultimate outcome of the controversy will be, it’s also discouraging that so many academics and Americans generally manage to convince themselves that there’s no serious religious freedom issue with the “contraception mandate” on the basis of what strike me as patently flimsy rationalizations.  (Religious institutions aren’t “burdened” (even though they say and think they are), or most Catholics use contraceptives anyway, or the governmental interest is “compelling.”)  It may be that lots of Americans are happy enough to support religious freedom in the abstract, but whenever a specific issue comes along that they care about, or when the burden falls on some person or institution they don’t sympathize with, this support somehow disappears.

The other, related qualification I would make is that I don’t believe we should think of public support as sufficient in lieu of persuasive justifications, as if it were some independent variable.  Public attitudes are based in part on reasons that have been advanced over the years or centuries, and those attitudes can change pretty quickly when plausible reasons can’t be given for them.

–Steve Smith

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