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.

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