Religious Freedom in the Modern World
For most young Americans, the first narrative introduced in early education about the beginning of the American project is the pilgrim’s search for religious freedom. The narrative could be boiled down into one simple sentence: “English king exiles pious pilgrims who flee on the Mayflower to Plymouth rock.” This American origin story, simplistic and lacking much context, is probably more cognitively accessible to generations of American youth than the principles of the actual framing of the Constitution, the details of the Declaration of Independence, or more than three or four amendments in the Bill of Rights. In some respects, this is deeply problematic and indicative of a lack of depth in teaching American youth about the fundamental principles that underlie the American system. In another respect, this teaches a very important and relevant truth, namely, that there is no more central principle to America than the principle of religious freedom.
In a country that’s growing more and more secular by the year, there has never been a more important time to discuss religious liberty. America is unique in that, despite the strong trends away from religion, it is still one of the most religious countries amongst wealthy nations. More people pray daily in the United States than any country in Europe. Surprisingly, more people pray daily than even the deeply Catholic country of Mexico to our South. Most Americans, 89% to be exact, even believe that “everyone is free to follow their religious beliefs and practices in their personal lives, provided they do not cause harm to others.” In the abstract, all of this would seem to bode well for America maintaining a fundamental respect for religious freedom in the face of countervailing trends. However, religious liberty as a principle is something that may be more appealing to modern sensibilities in the abstract than in the practical application to the controversial issues of the day. For example, when the question is asked if hospitals or medical providers should be required to provide abortion services, nearly 65% oppose allowing an exemption from the requirement on religious grounds. An even smaller number of Americans would likely support exemptions around the provision of contraception on religious grounds, a recent religious liberty question that was taken up by the Supreme Court in 2020 due to a Trump administration rule regarding the Affordable Care Act’s birth control provisions. Over the past twenty years, there have been massive clashes over questions of religious freedom in cases like Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, a case in which the central question surrounded a bakery shop owner’s ability to provide cakes with speech that he disagreed with, and Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, a case about Catholic agencies selecting only foster parents that met the Catholic definition of marriage, “as being between a man and a woman”. Despite the Supreme Court usually siding with those seeking relief on religious liberty grounds, research suggests that if these rulings were done by popular vote amongst Americans, they would have gone the other way.
In our social climate in which a majority would support legalized abortion, same-sex marriage, and widely available birth control, it’s very easy to understand why that would be the case. It’s logical to have the opinion that if something is a fundamental right, no person or institution should be able to deny access to it, even on religious grounds. But the challenge here is that religious liberty itself is also a fundamental civil, and human, right. In most high profile cases involving religious liberty, it’s not a contest over the belief of a particular deity or higher power, but a question about putting the doctrine of a particular religious belief into practice when it is at odds with another legally defined right.
It is demonstrable that many religions, including Islam, Catholicism, and Orthodox Judaism, among others, have historical teachings, some many thousands of years old, that are in deep tension with the contemporary viewpoints on a whole host of social issues. I would argue that the stance that Americans should take in the face of this tension should not be “do we agree with these traditions,” but “do these traditions have the right to disagree with us?” People of all faiths, backgrounds, and political parties should be able to say, like Evelyn Beatrice Hall, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”. The coming years will present even more challenges, no doubt, to the coexistence of modernity and ancient religious views, not only in the United States but also in places like Nigeria and Afghanistan. If the United States will continue to be an icon for the world in terms of pluralism and diversity, we would do well to remember Plymouth Rock.