On the Future of Religious Freedom

For those who are interested, yesterday the Liberty Law site posted an essay I wrote on the possible future of religious freedom in the United States (“The Powerful Headwinds Confronting Religious Freedom“). In the essay, I describe the powerful cultural and political trends, especially religious polarization and an ever-expanding notion of equality, that make religious freedom increasingly problematic, especially for members of traditional religious groups. Here’s an excerpt:

The increasing religious polarization suggests that, unlike in the past, traditional believers cannot count on a widespread, if thin, cultural sympathy for their commitments. A large and growing percentage of Americans has no experience of traditional religion—and, to the extent it has had such experience, rejects it. Disagreements and misunderstandings are likely to be amplified by the fact that Nones overwhelmingly reject traditional teachings about sexuality, which they see as psychologically damaging and essentially unjust, an affront to the dignity of persons. It’s not coincidental that so many of our current disputes about religious liberty, like Masterpiece Cakeshop and Hobby Lobby, involve sexuality in some way.

Another cultural trend that should worry traditional believers is Americans’ expanding concept of equality. For many Americans, equality no longer means simply equality before the law. Rather, it means a rejection generally of distinctions among groups and individuals, including religious distinctions—a rejection of “difference per se.” Beliefs and practices that exclude outsiders from a religious community are presumptively suspect, because of the implicit judgments they suggest: some groups, apparently, think their beliefs and ways of life superior to others’. Such judgments seem impolite, ungenerous, and inconsistent with the spirit of true equality, which requires that each religion acknowledge the basic correctness of all the others.

The expansive notion of equality—equality as sameness—poses challenges for traditional religious groups, most of which continue to insist, as a matter of religious conviction, on maintaining boundaries with the followers of other religions. This doesn’t mean hostile relations, necessarily, only boundaries. For example, some evangelical student groups, while encouraging charity toward everyone, limit their membership to persons who share their faith commitments. Such limitations are apt to seem arbitrary and illegitimate to many Americans. In fact, a number of religious-liberty cases involve universities’ decisions to deny religiously “exclusive” student organizations access to campus.

You can read the whole essay here.

Peters, “The Children of Abraham”

9780691181035_3F.E. Peters, now an emeritus professor at New York University, is one of the greatest scholars of comparative religion in the United States. His works on Christianity, Islam, and Judaism are lucid, fair, and helpful, especially for scholars new to the field who are looking for a place to start. Years ago, I got a copy of his monograph, Islam: A Guide for Jews and Christiansfrom the St. John’s University library and have never returned it! Friends of mine who have taken classes with him say he is a great teacher as well.

This month, Princeton University Press is releasing a new edition of Peters’s The Children of Abraham: Judaism, Christianity, and IslamIt is surely worth reading, if one is at all interested in the subject (and one should be). Here’s the description from the Princeton website:

F.E. Peters, a scholar without peer in the comparative study of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, revisits his pioneering work. Peters has rethought and thoroughly rewritten his classic The Children of Abraham for a new generation of readers-at a time when the understanding of these three religious traditions has taken on a new and critical urgency.

He began writing about all three faiths in the 1970s, long before it was fashionable to treat Islam in the context of Judaism and Christianity, or to align all three for a family portrait. In this updated edition, he lays out the similarities and differences of the three religious siblings with great clarity and succinctness and with that same remarkable objectivity that is the hallmark of all the author’s work.

Peters traces the three faiths from the sixth century B.C., when the Jews returned to Palestine from exile in Babylonia, to the time in the Middle Ages when they approached their present form. He points out that all three faith groups, whom the Muslims themselves refer to as “People of the Book,” share much common ground. Most notably, each embraces the practice of worshipping a God who intervenes in history on behalf of His people.

The book’s text is direct and accessible with thorough and nuanced discussions of each of the three religions. Footnotes provide the reader with expert guidance into the highly complex issues that lie between every line of this stunning edition of The Children of Abraham. Complete with a new preface by the author, this Princeton Classics edition presents this landmark study to a new generation of readers.