Here’s an argument that I have seen repeatedly and that I have some trouble understanding. It goes something like this: currently in the United States, one is hearing lots of nattering and complaining from various quarters that religious liberty is threatened. But if you look at other parts of the world, that’s where you will really see grave threats to religious liberty — people’s churches being burned to the ground, people facing prison time for speaking their mind about religion, people being beaten and compelled to sign statements renouncing their religious beliefs, and many other horrors. That’s “what a real war on religion looks like,” in the words of the latest exponent of this style of argument, Amy Sullivan, in this TNR column, which references something that John Allen wrote.
The people making this kind of argument might be saying that those who champion religious liberty ought to be focusing on very grave threats to it. That is undeniably true. It is extremely important that we all do so, exactly because those sorts of threats are often far away and therefore less immediate for us. But they might also be saying that the best measure of the condition of religious liberty in the United States is by comparison with its worst violations abroad. We shouldn’t worry about religious liberty here, because after all, look at how bad things are out there.
If that is the claim, it strikes me as unpersuasive.
ADDENDUM: A commenter over at Mirror of Justice points out that nobody would make similar sorts of comparative claims about other areas of the law where the legal protection abroad is substantially less than in the US. This is an interesting point. It might be that religious liberty is susceptible of this sort of comparative claim in the United States for a variety of reasons. Possibilities: (1) the belief, at least in some parts, that claims of threats of religious liberty are being asserted in a partisan or selfish or unfair way (it is much less common to hear this claim made about, e.g., the 4th Amendment); or (2) the (growing?) belief that religious liberty — unlike, say, the right against unreasonable searches and seizures by the government — is not (or is no longer) as independently powerful a right as other fundamental rights. Feedback loop to posts by Steve Smith.