These demands have played out very publicly. For example, Kentucky County Clerk Kim Davis, who, because of her beliefs about marriage, refused to issue a marriage license to a same-sex couple after the Obergefell decision, was sued by the American Civil Liberties Union and ordered by a federal judge to issue the license. After an unsuccessful appeal, she continued to refuse to issue licenses and was subsequently jailed for contempt of court. This and other cases like it have likely contributed to growing concern in recent years.
Future Threats to Religious Freedom
A plurality of Americans believe freedom of religion in the US is worse than it was 10 years ago, and most clergy believe it is becoming less valued—so what do they envision for the future?
In the 2014 survey, over half of Protestant pastors (55%) admitted they were very concerned that religious freedom will become more restricted in the next five years. This dropped to below half in the 2015 / 2016 study, and to one-third (34%) in 2017.
In many ways, these decreasing concerns belie the realities on the ground and in the headlines during these years. In 2015, in particular, several high-profile religious liberty stories dominated the news, including the controversial passage (and amendment) of the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which proponents claimed was intended to restrict government’s ability to infringe on religious rights; the landmark ruling in Obergefell vs. Hodges in the Supreme Court, granting marriage rights to same-sex couples; and threats to repeal the accreditation of Gordon College for their statement of faith on marriage as limited to a man and a woman. These controversies were national news, yet most pastors concerns about religious freedom decreased during those years—perhaps indicating less of a “headline sensitivity” than one might expect.
That said, most pastors are not moving from very concerned to a total lack of concern. Most clergy shifting away from very concerned have simply moved to somewhat concerned, which increased from one-quarter (25%) in 2014 to 31 percent in 2015 / 16, to two in five (39%) in 2017. Pastors who said they were not too concerned about future restrictions of religious freedom increased from one in eight (12%) in 2014 to one in five (20%) in 2017.
A Broader Context for the Religious Liberty Debates
As we have explored, contention over religious liberty has been part of America since the 1600s. That we are still divided on these questions in 2018 is not surprising. That said, the shift in how the general public thinks about same-sex marriage has introduced a new complicating factor that has contributed to growing fears about religious liberty among clergy, growing hostility to it among non-religious Americans, and no small amount of controversy about the place of religion in public life.
In the next chapter, we zoom out to look at the broader cultural context and the increased tribalism that defines public life in America. The challenge facing us is not only that we fight over religious liberty; it’s that there is not much of a “we” in the United States today. Due to the fracturing of local communities, rising mistrust and loneliness, and a polarized political system, the common life of the United States is beginning to fray.
It is simply a fact that we are now a pluralistic country. But how to live well within our pluralism is a problem we have yet to resolve. The issue of religious liberty is less a unique, stand-alone issue that reflects animosity toward Christians and is instead part of a larger failure of community in the United States.