Religious Liberty and the Fracturing of Civil Society

 
 

A humane civil society requires an ecosystem of religious freedom.

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The first lesson in civics received by most children in America is that America is a great “melting pot,” or perhaps a large patterned quilt sewn together with many unique squares. These images are meant to convey the essence of America’s motto: E pluribus unum (“out of many, one”).

American children are also taught that our country came to be thanks to a faithful, dissenting remnant—the Pilgrims—who sought political asylum and religious freedom. People traveled thousands of miles in order to create a political society where religious exercise was at the center. However inconsistent America’s earliest religious dissenters may have been in extending the freedom of dissent to others, religious freedom was woven into our nation’s earliest beginnings.

Protecting religious dissent is at the foundation of America’s history and constitutional legacy. As Madison and Adams argued, religion is prior to the claims of the state. It provides the grounding for democracy necessary for ordered liberty. And if religion is prior to the state, its importance looms larger than the state’s reach. This understanding wasn’t a secondary feature to America: it was, arguably, its distinguishing feature. Seen in this light, the Constitution didn’t bequeath religious liberty. Rather, religious liberty helped bequeath a penumbra of other rights that are enshrined in our Constitution.

"No Christians Wanted"

Today, when it comes to protecting dissent, something is awry. “Not Welcome Here” has become the overriding sentiment communicated to traditionalist Christians because of their beliefs about marriage, sexuality, and gender. The regime of secular progressivism, with its mantra that “Error Has No Rights,” doesn’t just create concerns for conservative Christians. No, the very possibility of civil society’s embrace of dissent is also being called into question, which means that the American tradition itself is being betrayed.

The stories of dissent being quashed are becoming too numerous to list. College campuses have de-recognized Christian groups because of the behavioral standards required of group leaders. Florists, bakers, and photographers have been told that they must violate their consciences in order to engage in commerce. Adoption and foster care agencies have been shuttered for refusing to place children in family arrangements that violate their convictions. Most recently and most egregiously, the state of California has taken action to deny applicants to Christian schools the ability to gain access to government-backed education loans. The effect of these chilling actions is to render the accused guilty in the court of public opinion. These Christians are violating the sacred totems of secular progressivism.

But to take aim at a Christianity that upholds biblical sexuality is to take aim at the same Christianity whose Bible teaches innate dignity for the poor, the disabled, and the dispossessed. America cannot benefit from the fruits of Christianity while denying Christianity’s place and role throughout culture. Christians are increasingly feeling alienated and unwelcome in an America whose moral ecology Christianity helped create. In short, civil society is dying due to liberal orthodoxy.

America Doesn’t Make Martyrs

“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church” is a refrain worth remembering. But it isn’t a familiar refrain in America’s posture toward religion, and that’s because America from its birth borrowed from the moral capital of Christianity. From its beginnings, America was never designed to be in the martyr-making industry. It is precisely our resistance to the making of religious victims and martyrs that has allowed the marketplace of religious competition to coexist with a commitment to peace and nonviolence.

What does America gain by making Christians enemies of the state? It gains a population of victims left in the wake of expressive individualism. As the statistics bear out, the disconnection of American public morality from Christianity is wreaking havoc on our nation. From skyrocketing rates of non-marital childbearing, to the collapse of marriage, to the pain and misery that result from having multiple sexual partners devoid of commitment, America’s common culture and public morality are calcifying the further they depart from the Christian moral tradition. With religion pushed to the margins, further destabilizations will follow.

What’s the result of sending the message that Christians are a threat to civil society? Forget the E pluribus. What’s left is only an unum—“one.” This newfound orthodoxy is monolithic, setting itself up as the arbiter for entrance and participation in the public square. No longer is there a patchwork of difference held together by a commitment to freedom, but a threadbare fabric torn apart by increasing rigidities and hostilities toward Americans who believe that men and women are made uniquely for one another.

Denying true religious liberty communicates that participation in civil society is conditioned exclusively by accepting contested categories for participation in communal life. This reality paves over the conscience by declaring some issues untouchable and beyond debate. Untouchable orthodoxies that are given official government sanction will treat any dissenting voice as an enemy to be vanquished. Secular progressivism isn’t only the enemy of religious liberty and civil society; it is the enemy of reason itself.

The Need for Religion in Civil Society and the Danger of Secular Orthodoxy

Religious liberty contributes to the diversity of civil society. By its very nature, civil society will be contested territory. Contested debate helps give rise to democratic order, and democratic governance relies on spirited debate. Societies, of which governments are but a reflection, consist of various voices, movements, and ideologies vying for acceptance. In the interest of advancing justice, prophetic difference and prophetic dissent are necessary ingredients if progress is to occur. Allowing citizens the freedom and space to appeal to transcendent duties forces reason to determine what is true or false. From our deepest understanding of truth, we order our lives accordingly, and our lives bear witness to whether our values benefit society. Signaling that Christians aren’t welcome in the public square undermines the public square by robbing it of the religious-ethical system responsible for fostering norms and values that protect individual rights and a humane public morality.

But another issue at stake in the loss of religious liberty in civil society is the future of participatory democracy. Telling citizens that their religious beliefs about marriage, gender, and sexuality are bigoted and wrong can build a generational cynicism and apathy in them, which causes them to withdraw from a  full involvement in liberal democracy that treats citizens equally. It creates another class of victims. Whether voluntary or assigned, creating religious ghettos through a kind of secular dhimmitude is not the American tradition. Where religious liberty empowers participants in civil society, a flattening out of religious values ensures that civil society will atrophy.

For the sake of ordered liberty, we must sustain a vibrant civil society that welcomes the rich contributions of religious citizens. To appreciate how religion helps civil society is to appreciate religion for more than its utilitarian goods for society. America’s religious liberty tradition goes deeper than that. Rather, religious liberty must be seen as an inalienable right that rational human beings exercise as inherently free persons. Religious liberty must continue to be framed as a constitutional priority. Legislation must be promoted that treats religious liberty as a pillar of civic freedom, not simply a private piety to be accommodated.

In a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, noted conservative thinker Yuval Levin offers social conservatives this advice:

In an increasingly fractured society, moral traditionalists should emphasize building cohesive and attractive subcultures, rather than struggling for dominance of the increasingly weakened institutions of the mainstream culture. While some national political battles, especially about religious liberty, will remain essential to preserve the space for moral traditionalism to thrive, social conservatives must increasingly focus on how best to fill that space in their own communities. That is how a traditionalist moral minority can thrive in a diverse America—by offering itself not as a path back to an old consensus that no longer exists but as an attractive, vibrant alternative to the demoralizing chaos of the permissive society.

One can hardly disagree with Levin when he argues that offering an attractive witness to the truth—regardless of the social cost—is the calling of any religious minority. Yet it bears emphasizing that religious liberty is not only “essential” as Levin states, but an urgent priority in our moment. Given the threats currently facing people of faith in our country, religious liberty must become the political centerpiece of moral traditionalists.

A humane civil society requires an ecosystem of religious freedom. The question that government officials and cultural elites must reckon with is this: can America really afford to blacklist millions of traditionalist Christians and, in so doing, lose the social capital that Christians bring to our common culture?

Andrew T. Walker is Director of Policy Studies at The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and a PhD student in Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He plans to write his dissertation on religious liberty.

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