01 The Role of Religious Freedom in a Pluralistic Culture

The Role of Religious Freedom in a Pluralistic Culture


Americans have always disagreed about the practices of religious belief. In 17th-century New England, the free-thinking Roger Williams challenged the Puritan leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony for restricting what Williams called “soul freedom,” by which he meant the right for an individual soul to worship God as he or she saw fit without interference from other parties. The Puritans, led by a pastor named John Cotton, argued against Williams, saying that the people needed to remain united in their walk with Christ and that introducing division on matters of personal belief would jeopardize the life of the community. The dispute turned out to be irresolvable, with Williams contending earnestly for the freedom of the individual person to practice their faith, and Cotton insisting on the necessity of unity in the Body of Christ. The debate “ended” with Williams being banished from Massachusetts and settling in a new part of New England that would become the colony of Rhode Island, an eventual haven for religious dissidents.

Even in its earliest days, America was a place riven by debates over religious liberty, with communities quite literally fracturing and beginning anew over the issue. Though we are today arguing about issues like same-sex marriage and employer-provided healthcare, the underlying question—how do we balance the individual’s liberty to practice their religious beliefs freely with the need to maintain a coherent common life for all Americans?—is still a part of our life in the United States.

Indeed, we are still using many of the same terms that were first used 350 years ago! Today, Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, often uses the term “soul freedom” when arguing for religious liberty.1 In this sense, the question of what role religious belief should play in public life is not at all new. Indeed, it is older than the United States itself. Yet new questions are being asked as successive generations are less connected to Christianity—or to religion at all—and America moves into the post-Christian future. Both the common good and the Church’s testimony call for careful thought about this issue.

One of the foremost challenges to careful thought concerning these questions is that public awareness of these debates is mixed— even among the clergy. This chapter explores how pastors and the general public define terms related to religious freedom and how they view the religious landscape of the United States.

  • Is America considered a Christian nation, or do most people believe we live in a religiously plural or secular context?
  • Is there broad agreement across denominational and faith segments?

This chapter also examines how clergy and adults overall view changing attitudes toward religious freedom in America and how these views have changed over time.

  • Has religious freedom become more restricted?
  • What is the level of concern among pastors and the general population about religious freedom?

Defining Religious Freedom

When it comes to defining terms on religious freedom, there is little confusion. Most religious leaders prefer a definition that mirrors the language of the First Amendment: that the government shall not prohibit the free exercise of religion. In the 2014 survey of all Christian and non-Christian clergy, over eight in 10 (82%) said that religious liberty is “freedom to practice religion without interference from government.” Far fewer defined it as “the freedom from laws and policies that favor one religion over another” (8%) or “the freedom to make personal choices without interference from religious organizations” (7%).

These numbers hold true for most segments, but non-Christian clergy (58%) were less likely to choose the majority definition when compared to Catholic (90%) and Protestant non-mainline clergy (88%). They are more likely than other clergy segments to say that religious liberty is either “freedom from laws and policies that favor one religion over another” or “the freedom to make personal choices without interference from religious organizations” than almost any other group. As minorities, non-Christian clergy are likely more willing to embrace government oversight or intervention to ensure freedom of conscience and equal protection, in light of an influential Christian majority. Among Protestant denominations, African American clergy (69%) are also slightly less convinced of this top choice, perhaps also the result of a minority experience.

When it comes to the general public, a majority of American adults affirm a similar definition: “True religious freedom means that all citizens must have freedom of conscience, which means being able to believe and practice the core commitments and values of your faith.”

However, over the past five years, consensus around this definition has begun to break down. In 2012, 69 percent of Americans favored the definition, but by 2017 that number had fallen to 55 percent. Though most still agree (at least somewhat), it appears American adults are feeling less certain about this definition. The same is true for practicing Christians, who have seen a similar decline from 78 percent in 2012 to 62 percent in 2017. In light of recent public battles over religious freedom and increasing hostility toward traditional views, Americans appear less willing to defend the right for religious Americans to believe and practice the core commitments and values of their faith, particularly when affirming religious freedom of this sort also means that minority groups may be discriminated against in some way.

Religious Descriptions of the US

One significant explanation for the shift in how Americans view religious liberty is, of course, the broader shifts in the religious lives of many Americans. Though Americans struggle to agree on the importance of religious liberty, they do generally agree that religious identity in the United States is changing. More than half of those surveyed, and more than 80 percent of faith leaders, describe the US as “a religiously plural nation” and “a nation in transition spiritually.”

Viewed through a relationship lens, then, one of the main questions confronting many Americans is how to live well with neighbors who are very different. How do we build bonds of neighborliness across religious, class, ethnic, racial and linguistic lines?

While most clergies agree America is in a period of religious transition, impressions of where the country is in that transition diverge along faith lines. Non-Christian clergy (58%) are less likely than all faith leaders (73%) to agree that “a secular nation” is an accurate description, possibly because more than two in five of them (43%) still see the United States as “a Christian nation.” At the other end of the spectrum, 79 percent of Protestant non-mainline clergy describe the nation as “secular,” as do 72 percent of Catholic clergy and 66 percent of Protestant mainline clergy. About one in five Protestant non-main-line clergy (21%) and mainline clergy (18%) would say the United States is currently “a Christian nation.”

The outliers among Christian clergy are Catholics, nearly half of whom (49%) say the nation is still Christian. One plausible explanation is that Catholics were for many years excluded from mainstream America. It was only during the post–World War II years that American Catholics began to be seen as mainstream Americans; Bishop Fulton Sheen’s TV shows and President John F. Kennedy’s political success were two major factors in this shift. Given how long it took Catholics to gain such standing in Christian America, it is perhaps unsurprising that they are reluctant to regard America as not being a Christian nation. If America is not Christian, does that once again push Catholics outside the American mainstream?

That exception aside, the pattern is striking: Christians see the nation as transitioning away from Christianity while non-Christians identify the US as strongly religious. Where do these diverging responses come from?
One possibility is that, as America becomes more polarized, both “sides” of the divide feel their position is under threat because of the extremism of their ideological opposites. A second contributing factor is that, as local communities become less influential and the centralized power of the federal government becomes larger, a great deal of one’s day-to-day life can be shaped by the decisions of the president and the Supreme Court.

These anxieties were on display during the 2016 US presidential campaign. Some Christians worried a Hillary Clinton victory would mean Christian business owners could face large fines or even arrest if they refused to comply with laws that violate their conscience. Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s call for a ban on Muslim immigration provoked concern that ethnic or religious minority communities would be treated unfairly under his presidency. Regardless of who won, there were plausible reasons for both sides to worry about their religious liberties changing in a major way as a result of political events.

Moving from clergy to US adults overall, the picture shifts slightly. In a survey conducted in 2015, two-thirds of US adults agreed that America is “a religiously plural nation.” Over half (53%) also said that “a nation in transition spiritually” is an accurate description. That said, the general population is much more equivocal in their assessment of the nation’s religious identity. Half of the American public (49%) still believes the US is a Christian nation, compared to only one-quarter of all clergy (26%). The general population is also much less likely to believe the US is a secular nation. While 73 percent of all faith leaders and 79 percent of non-mainline Protestant clergy say the nation is secular, only 43 percent of all US adults believe the United States is a secular nation.

The research does not provide an explanation for these different views between clergy and the general population. Pastors have had a front-row seat for the well-documented decline in church attendance and affiliation that has occurred in recent decades, and thus may perceive changes that are not apparent to others. On the other hand, the emotional and professional investment that clergy have in the religious lives of Americans may cause them to exaggerate the changes they see.

Value of Religious Freedom in the US

In light of the religious shifts they perceive in America, do clergy believe religious freedom is declining? Most, regardless of religious affiliation, say religious freedom is less valued and less protected than in the past. In the 2014 study of Christian and non-Christian faith leaders, half said that it is definitely becoming less valued. Another one-quarter (24%) believed it is becoming somewhat less valued. While mainline Protestants were less likely than other Christian clergy to say religious freedom is becoming definitely (29%) or somewhat (25%) less valued, together these views still comprised a majority opinion (54%). Non-mainline Protestants were more unequivocal (62%) in their belief that the value of religious freedom is definitely diminishing, while somewhat fewer Catholics (45%) said so.

Non-Christian faith leaders in 2014 also perceived a diminishing appreciation for religious freedom in the US. One-third (34%) said it is definitely less valued today and another one in five (22%) said it is somewhat less valued. Compared to Christian pastors overall, they were also more likely to say religious freedom is alive and well (44% somewhat and definitely), along with slightly less than half of the mainline Protestants (46%).

In 2014, a religious liberty lawsuit involving popular retailer Hobby Lobby went all the way to the Supreme Court. In 2016, a case involving the Catholic religious order The Little Sisters of the Poor similarly went to the nation’s highest court. Both cases concerned sections of the Affordable Care Act, which requires employers to provide various forms of contraception, some of which may be abortifacients, as part of their healthcare benefits package. Catholic charities and a number of other faith-based adoption agencies were compelled to abandon their services in Boston and Washington, D.C., for their refusal to place children with same-sex parents. In addition, photographers, florists and owners of bakeries and bed-and-breakfasts became subject to state and local sanctions (or even prosecution) for refusing to offer services for same-sex marriage ceremonies. Faith-based educational institutions also feared losing their tax-exempt status over challenges to their beliefs about sexuality, gender and marriage, leading to a great deal of uncertainty about the future of religious freedom in the US.

Most of these cases have been decided in favor of religious organizations and businesses, but it may be that the experience of being adjudicated rather than simply assumed has left clergy questioning the future of religious liberty in the United States.

Shifts in the Value of Religious Freedom

Between the initial study in 2014 and subsequent surveys in 2015 to 2017, these perceptions have changed somewhat. Among Protestant clergy, those who claim that religious freedom is definitely becoming less valued dropped 11 percentage points from 55 percent to 44 percent. Those who said it was somewhat less valued increased nine percentage points from 23 percent in 2014 to 32 percent in 2017.

The success of high-profile cases such as the one brought by Hobby Lobby, as well President Trump’s promises to promote and protect religious freedom, may have eased concerns among religious leaders, explaining some of the movement in the data. Over the same period, the minority view that religious liberty is at least somewhat alive and well remained the same (23%), but became less certain (11% definitely in 2014 vs. 6% in 2017). The concerns of Protestant clergy about religious freedom are easing—but not vanishing. Among both the majority who believe it is becoming less valued and the cautiously optimistic minority a great deal of uncertainty remains.

The general US population also sees the value of religious freedom decreasing. When asked in 2012 if they believe that freedom of religion in the US is worse, better or about the same as it was 10 years before, most said freedom of religion was about the same as it was 10 years ago (42%), while only one-third (33%) said it was worse. This essentially flipped in 2015, when one-third reported it was the same, while four in 10 said worse (41%). That trend continued into 2017, with 43 percent saying it had become worse and fewer saying it was the same (27%).

In other words, the belief that religious freedom in the US is on the decline increased by 10 percentage points over the course of five years. Although the successes of religious liberty cases in recent years have likely eased concerns among clergy, concern among US adults appears to be growing—even though their level of concern currently matches clergy. The Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell vs. Hodges to legalize same-sex marriage in all 50 states caused particular concern that individuals and churches, as Justice Clarence Thomas commented, might be “confronted with demands to participate in and endorse civil marriages between same-sex couples.”

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.

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The Effects of Tribalism

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