03 How Important Is Religious Liberty?

How Important Is Religious Liberty?


Although religious liberty is an important question facing American clergy, it is a secondary question for most. The Harvard legal scholar Adrian Vermuele notes that issues such as religious liberty are a step removed from the chief issues that concern a people’s life together.4 Before we debate how to resolve our differences, we must first establish those differences, which means attending first to what we actually believe about life’s ultimate questions and what practices we adopt in response to those beliefs—and only after those issues are resolved turning to questions of how to live together despite our differences. The dominant concern for many clergy is with the first set of questions:

    • What are the actual religious beliefs of Americans?
    • What do they believe about morality?
    • Do they attend church?

Concerns about religious liberty follow from concern about the divisions opening up in America about the great questions of life. In this chapter, then, we review some of these foundational questions that are of such concern to American clergy and offer ways forward for addressing them faithfully in a fragmenting world.

Ministry Concerns

In the 2014 study of clergy, participants were presented with a list of issues that have the potential to affect their ability to minister effectively in the coming decade. Of these possibilities, “teens and young adults dropping out of church” ranked number one among every clergy segment, revealing how common the dropout problem has become. Nearly all Christian ministers and eight out of 10 non-Christian clergy said they were very or somewhat concerned about this trend.

The second largest concern, cited by nearly two-thirds (65%) of clergy was “the decline of traditional families,” followed by a concern over “increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage and LGBT orientations” (55%), “freedom of religion becoming much more limited in the US” (54%) and “Christians remaining faithful and effective as a minority within the US” (53% very concerned). Significantly fewer expressed concern about “minority religions having unequal influence in society in comparison to their size” (28%).

Protestant pastors were given an open-ended opportunity in 2014 to name the two or three cultural or social issues that concern them most. Among the most common answers were LGBT issues (33%); the general spiritual condition of Americans (27%); the decline of traditional families (19%); overall moral decline (14%); poverty and homelessness (14%) and religious freedom (12%). Again we see that the challenges facing clergy are broader than the singular issue of religious freedom. The limitation of religious freedom is a subset of a larger secularizing trend and moral shift away from traditional Christianity.

By a long shot, the challenge of reaching (and losing) younger generations presents the most serious concern of pastors and religious leaders. Young people are coming of age in a culture uncertain about moral and spiritual truth and are deeply distrustful of institutions, particularly the Church—which they are leaving in droves. Barna’s most recent research on Gen Z shows that teens 13 to 18 years old are twice as likely as adults to say they are atheist (13% vs. 6%).

Pastors are concerned about the changing nature of the family. Divorce, remarriage, delayed marriage, cohabiting and the rise of single-parent households are changing the nature of the traditional family unit. Christians have long believed that the strength of the family is the strength of a society, and the data shows how children of married couples are economically, mentally and academically better off as they enter adulthood.5

This leads to a third concern: broad acceptance of LGBT orientations. The shift in attitudes toward sexual minorities in the last few decades has been dramatic, culminating in the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision guaranteeing the right for same-sex couples to marry. Same-sex relationships have become increasingly less taboo, and we’ve seen a rapid increase in LGBT-inclusive policies in the workplace, in schools and in healthcare. Concerns around LGBT issues are high priority to many clergy and, as explored in the special section on page 59, the two issues of religious freedom and LGBT rights are nearly impossible to separate.

The Future United States

In light of these concerns, if these trends away from Christian morality and church attendance persist, what might the United States look like in the coming decade?

Given a list of possible future scenarios, not all clergy members in the 2014 study agreed on the likelihood of various outcomes. A majority of clergy says “society, in general, will be less moral” (64% very likely)—but they are internally divided. Southern Baptists are the most pessimistic (85%), followed by non-mainline Protestants (77%), mainline Protestants (49%), non-Christians (43%) and Catholics (37%). This divide is not surprising if one assumes that Southern Baptists trend most conservative on these matters, that non-Christians have the least concern about traditional Christian morality and that the remaining groups surveyed basically fall into line some- where along the continuum between them.

These concerns mirror Barna’s other research on morality. We have found that Americans are both concerned about the nation’s moral condition and confused about morality itself. Barna’s recent Gen Z study also found that moral relativism is taking deep root in America.

One-quarter of Gen Z strongly agrees that what is morally right and wrong changes over time based on society, and they are nearly on par with Millennials in believing each individual is his or her own moral arbiter (see p. 55 of Gen Z).

One outcome, chosen by almost half of all clergy as very likely, is that “Christians will have less influence in society” (46%). At least eight out of 10 in each of the Christian segments believe this is very or somewhat likely; half of non-Christian clergy agree (53%).

It may come as no surprise that the influence of Christianity in the United States is waning. Barna research has observed rates of church attendance, religious affiliation, belief in God, prayer and Bible- reading dropping for decades. Americans’ beliefs are becoming more post-Christian and the role and influence of churches are slowly eroding. The reaction to this loss of prominence among Christians is mixed, but how churches respond is vitally important in the days ahead, as Christians move from a dominant culture to a minority culture.

The concerns that follow all relate in some way to the prospect of limited freedoms, religious or otherwise. Nearly half of all clergy (44%) believe that “other kinds of freedoms, not just religious, will also be at risk.” There is somewhat more agreement between Christians and non-Christian leaders on this. Two-thirds of non-Christian faith leaders (68%) say this is at least somewhat likely, compared to three-quarters of African American (78%) and mainline Protestants (75%), and nine out of 10 non-mainline Protestants (89%).

Another four in 10 among all faith leaders (41%) say it’s very likely “the government will have too much control over religious institutions.” Nearly half of non-Christian clergy (46%) agree it is at least somewhat likely, while half or more of all Christian clergy believe so. Similar proportions predict the likelihood that “people will have less ability to practice their faith without interference.”

How Will Diminished Freedom
Affect Pastoral Ministry?

Have clergy thought about the possible consequences of restricted religious freedoms for their ministry? The majority of clergy members in the 2014 study had given at least some thought to possible ministry ramifications (77%). About seven in 10 non-Christian (69%) and six in 10 mainline Protestant clergy (61%) said they had done so. These are small majorities compared to the nine out of 10 Southern Baptist pastors who had thought some (41%) or a lot (49%) about how their ministry might be affected. Other segments fall somewhere between these poles.

A group of ministers who had given at least some thought to how their ministry might be impacted by diminished freedom were given an open-ended opportunity to name these likely effects. The most common answer among one-quarter of clergy (24%) is the likelihood he or she would receive criticism for preaching the truth. Pastors anticipate feeling hesitant to preach, concerned about blowback from a callout culture and broken public discourse.

The growth in online shaming, attention to microaggressions and debates over political correctness have precipitated a tense battle over language in the US, likely contributing to pastors’ fears. One in five foresees the possibility of being pressured or required to perform gay marriages (19%). A loss of tax-exempt status (15%), more difficulty evangelizing (9%) and declines in church attendance and commitment (10%) are other issues clergy fear could be the effects of diminished religious freedom on ministry.

Threats to Religious Freedom

Respondents were invited to rate the threat level of various issues as “not a threat,” a “minor threat,” a “major threat” or an “extreme threat” to religious liberty. On the whole, a majority of non-Christian clergy do not view the slate of options as particularly threatening to religious freedom. Christian segments, however, demonstrate varying concerns and priorities.

Non-mainline Protestant, Southern Baptist and Catholic clergy have their greatest concerns mostly in common, albeit at varying levels of intensity. These include “religious organizations being required to hire without discrimination toward those in same-sex marriages or same-sex partnerships”; “religious hospitals being required to perform abortions and other services they deem to violate their religious convictions”; and “religious organizations being required to provide health care options they object to” (Catholics and Southern Baptists) or “religious owners of businesses being required to provide services to those with whom they morally disagree” (non-mainline Protestants). A significant majority in each segment views these issues as extreme or major threats.

Mainline Protestant clergy, given their overall greater openness to LGBT relationships, do not share others’ concerns about hiring policies with regard to same-sex partnerships—but they do express some concern about the freedom of religious organizations to set faith-based policies. These include requiring religious hospitals to perform abortions or provide morally objectionable services and/or health- care options, and suing religious organizations “for firing employees who violate faith-based conduct policies.” These are seen as extreme threats to religious liberty by 20 to 30 percent of mainline Protestant pastors, with greater proportions viewing them as major or minor threats.

African American Protestants share non-mainline Protestant and Catholic concern about hiring policies related to same-sex marriage. But, diverging from other Christian segments, these ministers are more likely to cite “restricted government funding for faith-based universities, schools and other non-profits because of those schools’ positions on moral issues” and “religious organizations on college campuses being forced to accept members who don’t adhere to their faith or beliefs” as extreme threats to religious freedom.

Enemies of Religious Freedom

But where are those threats emanating from? Are there groups actively trying to negatively impact religious freedom in this country? Here again the evidence of tribalism is apparent. When asked in 2014, at least three-quarters of all clergy (75%) believed atheists or secularists have a negative impact on religious liberty in America. This perception exists across all subgroups of Christian clergy. At the low end, two out of three mainline Protestant clergy (66%) said that secularists have a negative impact on religious liberty. Meanwhile, nearly all Southern Baptists (93%) raised this concern.

The other culprit commonly cited by clergy as a threat to religious freedom is “religious extremists.” But here, again, the tribalized nature of our moment becomes apparent. Nearly nine in 10 non-main- line Protestants say religious extremists from non-Christian religions have a negative impact on religious liberty. According to 84 percent of mainline Protestants, however, religious extremists from Christian traditions have a negative impact on religious liberty. This is likely because many, though not all, far-right groups, including white nationalist groups, tend to identify themselves with some form of Christianity.

In other words, most groups tend to point the finger away from their own group. For instance, non-Christian clergy are least likely to believe that religious extremists from non-Christian traditions have a negative impact on religious freedom, while also being one of the most likely to say religious extremists from Christian traditions have a negative impact. This is true for most traditions, with the exception of mainline Protestants, who are more likely to blame Christian extremists (84%) than non-Christian extremists (71%).

With each group identifying a small group of outsiders as the greatest danger it is easier to discern why some are reluctant to engage in conversation across party lines. Here the public square lens may be a helpful way of viewing the problem. Whatever we think about the religious beliefs of the other group, or their perceptions of our cultural moment, a simple fact unites us: We all must exist within the same country. Thus, it is worthwhile to try to discern where there may be agreement on what constitutes a healthy society and how various groups can work together to realize those shared goals. On this point, it is perhaps worth noting that what seems to most animate both liberals and conservatives is concern about “extremism.”

When it comes to US adults overall, a plurality generally believes religious freedom is becoming more restricted in the US because some groups have actively tried to move society away from traditional Christian values. But that sentiment has shifted over the years. In 2012, about four in 10 (38%) agreed strongly, compared to three in 10 a few years later in 2015 (28%) and 2017 (30%). Many of those who previously agreed strongly moved to agree somewhat, meaning that although most Americans do in fact believe some groups have actively tried to move society away from traditional Christian values, they are increasingly less certain about whether this is, in fact, the case. Evangelicals and practicing Christians, who express the highest levels of suspicion toward various groups, have remained fairly stable in their responses since 2012.

On the other hand, in a 2017 study, US adults were asked whether evangelical Christians are actively trying to impose their values on others in the country. Just over half agree (54%). Evangelicals have a complicated reputation in the public eye. Their loyalty to President Trump despite his decidedly non-Christian behavior and questionable values has confounded many Americans. Evangelical leaders, once known for lamenting moral decay, have thrown their full support behind the president, often defending some of his worst behavior.6

Barna also asked whether people believe the LGBT community is trying to remove Christian values from the country—and most consistently disagree.

In 2012, only 19 percent agreed strongly, dropping to 13 and 15 percent, respectively, in 2015 and 2017. But interestingly, the same is true at the other end of the spectrum. Two out of five (41%) disagreed strongly in 2012, but that dropped to three in 10 (32%) in 2017. In both cases, the movement has been to the center, with the numbers shifting from strongly to somewhat, evidence of increasing uncertainty about who and what is responsible for the shifting tides in American culture.

Despite changes in strong agreement and disagreement, overall percentages of those who agree and disagree have not shifted much. In 2012, 34 percent of people believed the LGBT community is trying to remove Christian values from the country. In 2017 that number increased to 39 percent. Conversely, in 2012 two-thirds of US adults (66%) disagreed with that statement, compared to six in 10 (61%) in 2017.

It could be that those for whom same-sex marriage was a preeminent concern have now moved on to other conflicts, or that these changes reflect a generational shift as Boomers give way to Millennials. It could also be that respondents simply perceive other stronger challenges to Christian values. Whatever the explanation of this shift, there remain unresolved tensions between these two tribes.

In the following special section, we focus on questions involving LGBT-related issues. These questions are especially fraught because they incorporate the first-order issues we have already talked about— What are our religious beliefs? What do we believe about morality?— and raise specific questions about religious liberty. Viewed through our five lenses, there is perhaps no other set of issues that raises hard questions from all five perspectives.

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The Church & the LGBT Community

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