Sunday, January 20, 2013

Religious Freedom for Everyone?

The whole debate about the status of religious freedom in the United States taxes a person's credulity. Most of the commentary I read is written from a position of certainty. Religious freedoms are being eroded. This is happening. Listen up: you need to be aware.

The certainty is unnerving. Something is happening, I will grant you, but I am not quite sure what exactly. The intensity of conviction with which the case for a fundamental challenge to religious freedom is being made, I would venture to suggest, is an affront to all true religion--all true piety. Christ did say, after all, You know neither the day nor the hour. These words of caution apply not only to the End of All Things, but to every single moment leading up to it. They are what inspired St. Augustine to write The City of God, whose main thesis can be summed up, 'Okay. We might be here for a little longer than we expected.' They ought to remind us, with a measure of certainty, that every word that escapes the human mouth has a necessarily questionable purchase on the things spoken about.

Half a day ago, Daniel Silliman tweeted an article describing how 'Most Americans Think Religious Freedom [is] Fast Declining in US'. Here's a summary of the findings of a study carried out by a California-based research group:
More than half of Americans (57 percent) believe "religious freedom has become more restricted in the U.S. because some groups have actively tried to move society away from traditional Christian values." This opinion is more common among practicing Catholics (62 percent) and Protestants (76 percent) and is nearly a universal perception among evangelicals (97 percent).
Never doubt that there may be found some nugget of truth buried in the well-intention beliefs of a randomly sampled number of adults. It is difficult to know, however, whether everyone surveyed understood the same thing when they heard the words 'religious freedom'.

The first question that popped into my head was: Religious freedom has become more restricted relative to what? The same in the 1990s? 80s? 50s? 20s? The question of temporal scale always has to be kept in mind. However you define religious freedom, it is undoubtedly advancing with great strides relative to the 16th and 17th century wars of religion in Europe, the 4th and 5th centuries in the Roman Empire during the struggle over the establishment of Christianity, and so on. The way the study was formulated, one gets the impression that impressions about the contemporary prospects of religious freedom were simply being drawn from personal memory.

The other question that arose in my mind had to do with the assumed nature of religious freedom. Was it identified with the freedom of conscience, the freedom to believe, which, in principle, is the right of every person? Or is it the freedom to congregate with one's fellow believes and participate in the rituals of one's religious tradition? Neither of these possibilities seem likely, since those surveyed seemed to identify a 'restriction of religious freedom' with a collective shift ' away from traditional Christian values'. When listening to Christian America speak about religious freedom, it is very difficult not to draw the conclusion that not everyone is free in quite the same way.

It seems President Obama is out of step with a majority of Christian America. On January 16th, by Presidential Proclamation, he declared the day Religious Freedom Day. Most people, one assumes, either doubted Obama's sincerity or his intellectual ability to identify that of which he spoke. On the other hand, Obama followed Thomas Jefferson where he 'affirmed that "Almighty God hath created the mind free" and "all men shall be free to profess . . . their opinions in matters of religion."' Historical references to constitutional precedents are usually a good indication of intellectual acumen. Reference to Almighty God, whether seriously intended or not, signals that whatever religious freedom is, it is meant for all, in the same way.

These are very different conceptions of what religious freedom entails. It's really no use pretending that we are talking about the same thing. The difference between them gets at an important question about how far one allows particular sets of convictions to dictate public policy. Because if Christian America identifies a restriction of religious freedom with the retreat of traditional Christian values, it is not religious freedom itself that is being challenged. It is a particular set of convictions. The article concludes:
"Evangelicals have to be careful of embracing a double standard: to call for religious freedoms, but then desire the dominant religious influence to be Judeo-Christian," said Kinnaman, author of the book, unChristian. "They cannot have it both ways. This does not mean putting Judeo-Christian values aside, but it will require a renegotiation of those values in the public square, as America increasingly becomes a multi-faith nation."
Nor, I would add, does one have to assume a 'renegotiation of those values in the public square' automatically entails that Christian will have to set aside Christian values. Though they may have to think through carefully the one's they presently hold so dear.

I myself don't think religious freedoms are being fundamentally challenged in the United States. A more likely explanation is that demographic shifts are forcing the Christian America to question whether it is quite as exceptional as it makes itself out to be.

No comments: