By W. Bradford Wilcox December 15, 2015
W. Bradford Wilcox is director of the University of Virginia's National Marriage Project, an American Enterprise Institute visiting scholar, an associate scholar at Georgetown University's Religious Freedom Project and co-author, with Nicholas H. Wolfinger, of "Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, Love, and Marriage among African Americans and Latinos."
It’s a message we hear more and more: Religion is bad.
And certainly recent headlines — from terrorist attacks perpetrated by radical Islamists in Paris and San Bernardino to the strange brew of warped Christian fundamentalism that appeared to motivate alleged shooter Robert Dear at the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs — feeds the idea that religion is a force for ill in the world. But in “The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason,” Sam Harris not only asserts that the “greatest problem confronting civilization” is religious extremism, he further waxes that it’s also “the larger set of cultural and intellectual accommodations we have made to faith itself.”
Taken together with the assessment of social scientists — the high priests of our contemporary culture — the message, increasingly, is clear. Just last month, a new University of Chicago study conducted by psychologist Jean Decety posited that religious children are less altruistic than children from more secular families. He went so far as to contend that his results reveal “how religion negatively influences children’s altruism. They challenge the view that religiosity facilitates prosocial behavior, and call into question whether religion is vital for moral development — suggesting the secularization of moral discourse does not reduce human kindness. In fact, it does just the opposite.”
It’s a sweeping indictment of the role of religion in society based on a study of sticker-sharing and cartoon-watching among children aged 5-12 around the globe. Using a non-random and non-representative sample, Decety found, among other things, that children from religious homes were less likely to share stickers with an unseen child than children from secular homes. In response to Decety’s findings, a Daily Beast headline proclaimed “Religious Kids are Jerks” and the Guardian reported “Religious Children Are Meaner than Their Secular Counterparts.”
As I see it, the impulses behind this thinking are several and, to some degree, understandable. Religion is frequently seen by secular observers as an obstacle to social progress on issues like abortion and gay rights, or as an adjunct of conservative politics in general. Meanwhile, a growing number of young adults in America identify as religious “nones,” often with little appreciation or understanding of religion. But is religion really as negative a force in our daily lives as its detractors and skeptics suggest? No.
On average, religion is a clear force for good when it comes to family unity and the welfare of children — the most important aspects of our day-to-day lives. Research, some of it my own, indicates that on average Americans who regularly attend services at a church, synagogue, temple or mosque are less likely to cheat on their partners; less likely to abuse them; more likely to enjoy happier marriages; and less likely to have been divorced.
Data taken from National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Surveyindicate, for instance, that Americans who attend religious services often are markedly more likely to report they are “very happy” in their marriages compared to those who rarely or never attend. Frequent attendees are about 10 percentage points more likely to report they are “very happy” in their marriages, even after controlling for their education, gender, race, ethnicity and region. So, faith seems to be a net positive for marriage in America.
And when it comes to kids, the research tells us that religious parents spend more time with their children. Indeed, the Deseret News/Brigham Young University American Family Survey tells us that parents who attend religious services weekly are more likely to eat dinner with their children, do chores together and attend outings with their children, even after controlling for parental age, gender, race, marital status, education and income.
Religious parents are also more likely to report praising and hugging their school-aged children. Contra Decety, University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter finds that religious teens are more likely to eschew lying, cheating and stealing and to identify with the Golden Rule. Children from religious families are “rated by both parents and teachers as having better self-control, social skills and approaches to learning than kids with non-religious parents,” according to a nationally representative study of more than 16,000 children across the United States.
In contrast to Decety’s assertions, faith is a net positive when it comes to “prosocial behavior” among American children.
French sociologist Emile Durkheim explained that what makes religion vital, in part, is that it provides rituals, beliefs and a sense of group identity that deepens people’s connections to the moral order. In his words, the faithful “believe in the existence of a moral power to which they are subject and from which they receive what is best in themselves.”
The rituals associated with religion lend meaning to life, including its most difficult moments and seasons — from the loss of a job to the loss of loved one. Moreover, as I’ve noted elsewhere, more formal “rites as a baptism and a bris, congregations erect a sacred canopy of meaning over the great chapters of family life: birth, childrearing and marriage.” Religious rituals encourage us to take our family roles more seriously and to help us deal with the stresses that can otherwise poison family relationships. The norms — from fidelity to forgiveness — taught in America’s houses of worship tend to reinforce the faithful’s commitments to their spouses, family members and children and give them a road map for dealing with the disappointments, anger and conflicts that crop up in all family relationships. And as one of the most powerful sources of social capital outside of the state and workplace today, religious social networks provide support and succor to millions of Americans.
Religious faith is not a cure-all when it comes to families and children. And, of course, millions of secular Americans enjoy strong and stable families — indeed, a majority of husbands and wives who rarely or never attend church report that their marriages are “very happy.”
To be sure, there are scenarios in which religion can be a source of tension. Evidence suggests that religious children are “less tolerant of social change and diversity in lifestyle,” according to Hunter. Their identification with and adherence to orthodox religious beliefs, in particular, seems to make them less likely to support abortion and gay rights.
And religious disagreement in the family — whether between husbands and wives or between parents and children — can spell trouble, especially when this disagreement is deep and heartfelt. Less conservative, less religious women married to theologically conservative men, for instance, are more likely than average to be physically abused. Nominal evangelicals — especially nominal evangelicals from the South, the region I hail from — are more prone to higher rates of domestic abuse and divorce, even compared to their fellow citizens who have no religious affiliation.
But religion in America is not the corrosive influence that it’s often made out to be nowadays. On the contrary, for many Americans, it’s a source of inspiration that redounds not only to their benefit, but also to their families and communities.
By WILLIAM A. GALSTON
Dec. 30, 2014 6:57 p.m. ET
In this year-end holiday season, it is timely to reflect on American exceptionalism. Although this phrase is much abused in partisan polemics, it should not be discarded. The United States does continue to differ from most other developed democratic countries. And the heart of that difference is religion. The durability of American religious belief refutes the once-canonical thesis that modernization and secularization necessarily go hand in hand.
This is all the more remarkable because our Founders drafted a deliberately secular constitution. In 20 quietly revolutionary words, Article VI declares that “[N]o religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” Consistent with that prohibition, newly elected officials—from the president on down—may choose either to “swear” (that is, to take a religious oath) or simply to “affirm” their loyalty to the Constitution.
In 1789, this secular national constitution perched uneasily atop a Christian population residing in states the majority of which had established an official religion. These establishments have disappeared. But despite the enormous growth in the nation’s diversity over the past 225 years, Christian conviction remains pervasive.
If you doubt this, take a look at the survey the Pew Research Center released without much fanfare two weeks ago. Among its principal findings: 73% of U.S. adults believe that Jesus was born to a virgin; 81%, that the baby Jesus was laid in a manger; 75%, that wise men guided by a star brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh; and 74%, that an angel announced the birth of Jesus to shepherds. Fully 65% of Americans believe all four of these elements of the Christmas story, while only 14% believe none of them.
Although Republicans are more likely to espouse these beliefs than are Democrats and Independents, each group endorses them by a two-thirds majority or more. As expected, conservatives are more likely to espouse them than are moderates and liberals. But here again, majorities of each group endorse each belief. Among liberals, 54% profess a belief in the virgin birth.
What about the growth of secular thought in young Americans? As the Pew report dryly notes, there “is little sign of a consistent generation gap on these questions.” That’s an understatement. Seventy percent of adults age 18 to 29 believe that Jesus was born to a virgin; 69% that an angel announced his birth; 80% that he was laid in a manger; and 74% that the wise men made their gift-laden trek.
To be sure, the most-educated Americans are less likely to profess belief in the Christmas story. But even among adults with postgraduate degrees, 53% affirm the virgin birth of Jesus, with comparable or larger majorities for the story’s other elements.
These public beliefs have constitutional consequences. When it comes to church and state, many Americans are soft rather than strict separationists. When asked whether religious symbols like Christian nativity scenes should be permitted on government property, 44% said yes, whether or not the symbols of other religions are present. An additional 28% said that Christian symbols would be acceptable only if accompanied by symbols of other faiths. Only 20% took the position that no religious symbols should be allowed.
Democrats should pay careful attention to these findings. In reaction to the excesses of the religious right in recent decades, many secularists and strict separationists took refuge in the Democratic Party. Their voices are important. But if the party takes its bearings only from their concerns, it risks serious misjudgment.
Many Americans believe that religion has a legitimate if limited role in public life—including politics. Many Americans believe that it is wrong—not always, but usually—for laws and regulations to coerce individuals contrary to their conscientious beliefs. As Democrats pursue new policies in areas from health care to equal rights, they should work hard to minimize their intrusion on these convictions.
This will not be easy. According to the Public Religion Research Institute 2014 American Values Survey, the country is split down the middle. Forty-six percent of Americans are more worried about “the government interfering with the ability of people to freely practice their religion” than they are about “religious groups trying to pass laws that force their beliefs on others,” while 46% of Americans feel the reverse. Each group offers strong arguments and poignant anecdotes. A political party that wants to build a durable majority should listen carefully to both sides and seek policies that acknowledge the legitimacy of their concerns.
In this era of hyperpolarized politics, we are tempted to believe that everything right is found in our preferred party—and everything wrong in the other. It would improve the content of our policies as well as the tone of our politics to recognize that many issues are not like that. The relationship between religion and public life would be a good place to start.
"God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are a gift of God?"
While I serve in elective office, I am keenly aware that the most serious problems facing our country today are not purely political, or even mostly political. I would argue that what is ailing our country is profoundly moral in nature and, as such, necessitates a spiritual antidote. It demands, in the words of Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville, speaking of the American church he beheld in the 19th century, “pulpits aflame with righteousness.”
What better place to start in reflecting on the spiritual and moral health of our nation than with the first of the Ten Commandments: Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
According to the Bible, the Israelites were given the Ten Commandments after God delivered them from bondage in Egypt. They were not arbitrary laws to restrict or punish the Jewish people, rather they were intended to remind those freed from captivity of God’s demonstrable power and abounding love. This is perhaps most true of the first commandment in which God tells his people that he alone is worthy of their love, honor and ultimately worship.
When the prophet Moses, revered in the traditions of the three Abrahamic faiths, descends from the mountaintop, tablets in hand, he finds the Israelites worshipping a golden calf. Hard to envision today perhaps, but the temptations toward various forms of idolatry are no less real and arguably more sinister as they increasingly become the cultural norm. Think of the scourges of pornography, gambling, unbridled materialism, lust for power and drug abuse to name a few, and the broken lives they leave in their wake.
Today in America we bear witness to an insidious relativism that teaches that concepts of right and wrong are old-fashioned, antiquated and even judgmental. Vices are elevated. Virtues are mocked. Faith is squeezed out of the public square. Our culture is coarsened as a result.
These seemingly intangible realities have profound implications. Consider the following: In court case after court case the ability to display the Ten Commandments is debated and in some instances threatened. Such cases have more than symbolic relevance; they are a bellwether of sorts. But perhaps more significant is the reality that the display of the Ten Commandments is hardly as significant as the truths they contain: truths which beginning with the First Commandment to worship none but our Creator are under assault not just in courtrooms but in our culture.
Much has been written about the demise of American exceptionalism. But I believe that just as significant is the extraction of the hand of Providence from our shared national narrative.
Any faithful student of American history should be able to point to countless examples when a simple turn of events would have resulted in a drastically different outcome — an outcome which threatened the very future of this “shining city on a hill.” This is perhaps no more true than at our founding when a hearty band of patriots defied all odds and defeated the mighty British Empire.
George Washington himself famously said, “The Hand of Providence has been so conspicuous in all this, that he must be worse than an infidel that lacks faith and more than wicked, that has not gratitude enough to acknowledge his obligations.”
Indeed, whether hailing from the Judeo-Christian tradition or some other tradition altogether, every American who enjoys the fruits of liberty ought to contemplate the “Hand of Providence” in so richly blessing this unlikely venture in self-governance.
Such contemplation can’t but result in gratitude, which is itself at the heart of worship.
Rep. Frank Wolf is in his 17th term in Congress. He represents a part of Virginia just across the river from Washington, D.C. He is the co-chairman of the bipartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, which advocates for the voiceless around the globe and is often called the “conscience” of the House. He is retiring at the end of this Congress.
Read more at http://national.deseretnews.com/article/1295/Frank-Wolf-First-Commandment-shows-shining-example-of-American-exceptionalism.html#EUhPKgcyDv2duhF0.99
Billy Graham gets an all-star tribute for his 95th birthday
BY: Rodney Stark
Is America losing its faith in religion? The answer would seem to be yes, judging by polls and news stories lately. Gallup announced in May that 77% of Americans believe that religion is losing its "influence on American life." Reporting online about the Gallup results, The Blaze said the poll "suggests that America's slide toward secularism continues to gain steam."
In March at the Faith Angle Forum in South Beach, Fla., a paper by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life was presented bearing the title "The Decline of Institutional Religion." The presentation followed up on Pew research that gained wide publicity last fall indicating that the fastest-growing "religious" group in America is made up of those who say they have no religion.
According to Pew, 8% of Americans in 1990 gave their religious preference as "none." By 2007, that response had nearly doubled to 15%, and in 2012 the "no religion" response had climbed to 20%. Earlier this year, an analysis of the General Social Survey by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago tracked a similar trend, also citing the 20% no-religion response.
Many interpret the numbers to mean that America is heading down the secular road. In a survey published this month by the Pew Research Center, 48% of Americans say the growing number of "people who are not religious" is a bad thing for American society (and only 11% say it is a good thing).
But I disagree with the notion that the U.S. is heading toward becoming as unchurched as much of Europe. One reason is that saying you have "no religion" is not the same as disbelieving in God. Many people who say they have no religion are simply saying they have no official religious affiliation. They may actually have strong personal beliefs. The increase in the "no religion" group may also be an illusion caused by the rising nonresponse rate to survey studies.
Consider: The proportion of Americans who claim to be atheists has not increased even slightly since Gallup first asked about belief in God in 1944. Back then, 4% said they did not believe in God, and 3% or 4% give that answer today.
Most of those Americans who are reported as having no religion are not unreligious but only unaffiliated, and some of them even attend church. They do not belong to any specific denomination, but probably most of them would agree that they are Christians, had they been directly asked that question.
A far more important indicator, as many recent studies—including the Baylor National Religion Surveys—have found, is that those who say they have no religion are surprisingly religious. Most say they pray, and a third even report having had a religious experience. Half of these respondents who would be considered by survey takers to have "no religion" believe in angels.
So even if the proportion of Americans with no professed religion is rising, that does not translate into an increase in irreligiousness. But it may well be that the proportion of nonreligious Americans is not even increasing, and remains far smaller than recent surveys reveal.
When I was a young sociologist at Berkeley's Survey Research Center, it was assumed that any survey that failed to interview at least 85% of those originally drawn into the sample was not to be trusted. Those who refused to take part in the survey or could not be reached were known to be different from those who did take part. Consequently, studies were expected to report their completion rates.
Today, even the most reputable studies seldom reach more than a third of those initially selected to be surveyed and, probably for that reason, completion rates are now rarely reported. The Pew Forum researchers are to be commended for reporting their actual completion rates, which by 2012 had fallen to 9%.
Given all of this, only one thing is really certain: Those who take part in any survey are not a random selection of the population. They also tend to be less educated and less affluent. Contrary to the common wisdom, research has long demonstrated that this demographic group is the one least likely to belong to a church.
As the less-affluent and less-educated have made up a bigger share of those surveyed, so has the number of those who report having no religion. That would help explain why, during this whole era of supposed decline, Baylor surveys find that the overall rate of membership in local religious congregations has remained stable at about 70%. Hard to write a headline about the lack of change. Sometimes, though, no news really is good news.
Mr. Stark, co-director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University, is the author of "The Triumph of Christianity" (HarperCollins, 2012).
A version of this article appeared July 4, 2013, on page A9 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Myth of Unreligious America.
Yesterday was Sunday, and I have been thinking why a person of faith might be a better American this week than he or she otherwise would be, because of it....
As I processed "How has attending Willow Creek Chicago made me a better American", it forced me to step out from under my "Worship Pastor" hat.
We gather every Sunday in community, from different parts of the city. Many of us came from different parts of the country initially and some from different parts of the world. We gather for several reasons...but the main being lifting up the name of Jesus…and celebrating the fact that through the sacrifice of Jesus, we are all part of God’s vast Kingdom. And that Kingdom is a global one.
What I'm realizing is that being a part of Willow Chicago is making me a better citizen of the Kingdom of God. That’s where my allegiance lies. And as such….my thoughts….my prayers….and my actions become more global minded, and I am realizing that those same attributes make me a better American as I realize more and more that God loves all his children.
I am a 10 year veteran of the United States Air Force so I have great love and pride for our country. I wouldn't want to live any where else....not for an extended period of time anyway :) There is something unique and special about America...but we are not special in God's eyes. We are not without imperfections, but for whatever reason we are still looked at as a country of opportunity and freedom. I call that a blessing from God.
I find myself thinking about the movie Head Of State that stars Chris Rock as the first black president. His opponent character Brian Lewis coined the phrase "God Bless America...and no place else". I sometime feel like our pride in America can lead us to this kind of thinking and I know that's not what God has in mind for us as individuals, a people or a nation. I do want God to bless our country....and I love singing "God Bless America" in appropriate gatherings, and I love living in a country where I am free to share my thoughts on this subject.
So how has attending Willow Creek Chicago made me a better American? In short, by making me a better citizen of the Kingdom of God.
Francis Wyatt is the Worship Pastor of Willow Chicago. He believes that the arts can be a tool of cultural restoration for the city of Chicago. That desire is seen through music, dance, visual arts and spoken word that lifts the human heart and creates an environment of togetherness rather than division. He lives in Chicago with his wife, Cheryl. They have two adult children, April and Brandon.
December 22, 2012
One Nation Under God?
By MOLLY WORTHEN
THIS week millions of “Chreasters” — Americans who attend church only on Christmas and Easter — will crowd into pews to sing carols and renew their vague relationship with the Christian God. This year, there may be fewer Chreasters than ever. A growing number of “nones” live in our midst: those who say they have no religious affiliation at all. An October Pew Research Center poll revealed that they now account for 20 percent of the population, up from 16 percent in 2008.
Avoiding church does not excuse Americans from marking the birth of Jesus, however. Most of us have no choice but to stay home from work or school — and if you complain about this glaring exception to the separation between church and state, you must be a scrooge with no heart for tradition. Christmas has been a federal holiday for 142 years.
Yet Christianity’s preferential place in our culture and civil law came under fire this year, and not simply because more Americans reject institutional religion. The Obama administration subtly worked to expand the scope of protected civil rights to include access to legal marriage and birth control. Catholic bishops and evangelical activists declared that Washington was running roughshod over religious liberty and abandoning the country’s founding values, while their opponents accused them of imposing one set of religious prejudices on an increasingly pluralistic population. The Christian consensus that long governed our public square is disintegrating. American secularism is at a crossroads.
The narrative on the right is this: Once upon a time, Americans honored the Lord, and he commissioned their nation to welcome all faiths while commanding them to uphold Christian values. But in recent decades, the Supreme Court ruled against prayer in public schools, and legalized abortion, while politicians declared “war on Christmas” and kowtowed to the “homosexual lobby.” Conservative activists insist that they protest these developments not to defend special privileges for Christianity, but to respect the founders’ desire for universal religious liberty — rooted, they say, in the Christian tradition.
The controversial activist David Barton has devoted his career to popularizing this “forgotten history” through lectures, books and home-school curriculums. Mr. Barton insists that “biblical Christianity in America produced many of the cherished traditions still enjoyed today,” including “protection for religious toleration and the rights of conscience.”
Bryan Fischer, spokesman for the American Family Association, told me that he saw the “nones” as proof that “the foundations of our culture are crumbling.” The Pew poll, he said, “is one of the signs.” A couple of weeks after we spoke, he told a radio audience that God did not protect the children killed in the Newtown, Conn., massacre because of the Supreme Court decisions banning prayer and Bible reading in public schools. “God is not going to go where he is not wanted,” Mr. Fischer said.
How accurate is this story of decline into godlessness? Is America, supposedly God’s last bastion in the Western world, rejecting faith and endangering religious liberty?
The truth is that “nones” are nothing new. Religion has been a feature of human society since Neanderthal times, but so has religious indifference. Our illusions of the past as a golden age of faith tend to cloud our assessment of today’s religious landscape. We think of atheism and religious apathy as uniquely modern spiritual options, ideas that Voltaire and Hume devised in a coffee house one rainy afternoon sometime in the 18th century. Before the Enlightenment, legend has it, peasants hurried to church every week and princes bowed and scraped before priests.
Historians have yet to unearth Pew studies from the 13th century, but it is safe to say that we frequently overestimate medieval piety. Ordinary people often skipped church and had a feeble grasp of basic Christian dogma. Many priests barely understood the Latin they chanted — and many parishes lacked any priest at all. Bishops complained about towns that used their cathedrals mainly as indoor markets or granaries. Lest Protestants blame this irreverence on Catholic corruption, the evidence suggests that it continued after Martin Luther nailed his theses to the Wittenberg church door. In 1584, census takers in Antwerp discovered that the city had a larger proportion of “nones” than 21st-century America: a full third of residents claimed no religious affiliation.
When conservative activists claim that America stands apart from godless Europe, they are not entirely wrong. The colonies were relatively unchurched, but European visitors to the early republic marveled at Americans’ fervent piety. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1840 that the absence of an established state church nurtured a society in which “Christian sects are infinitely diversified and perpetually modified; but Christianity itself is a fact so irresistibly established that no one undertakes either to attack or to defend it.”
De Tocqueville visited during a wave of religious revival, but he underestimated the degree to which some Americans held Christianity at arm’s length: the “infidel” Abraham Lincoln declined to join a church, and his wife invited spiritualists to hold séances in the White House.
Nevertheless, America’s rates of church affiliation have long been higher than those of Europe — perhaps because of the First Amendment, which permitted a religious “free market” that encouraged innovation and competition between spiritual entrepreneurs. Yet membership, as every exasperated parson knows, is not the same as showing up on Sunday morning. Rates of church attendance have never been as sterling as the Christian Right’s fable of national decline suggests. Before the Civil War, regular attendance probably never exceeded 30 percent, rising to a high of 40 percent around 1965 and declining to under 30 percent in recent years — even as 77 percent still identify as Christians and 69 percent say they are “very” or “moderately” religious, according to a 2012 Gallup survey.
We know, then, that the good old days were not so good after all, even in God’s New Israel. Today’s spiritual independents are not unprecedented. What is new is their increasing visibility. “I like the fact that we’re getting more ‘nones’ because it helps Christians realize that they’re different,” Stanley Hauerwas, a Protestant theologian at Duke Divinity School, said when I asked for his thoughts on the Pew poll. “That’s a crucial development. America produces people that say, ‘I believe Jesus is Lord, but that’s just my personal opinion.’ ”
The temple of “my personal opinion” may be the real “established church” in modern America. Three decades ago, one “none” named Sheila Larson told the sociologist Robert Bellah and his collaborators that she called her faith “Sheilaism. Just my own little voice.” Americans are drifting out of the grip of institutionalized religion, just as they are drifting from institutional authority in general.
THIS trend, made famous by books like Robert Putnam’s “Bowling Alone,” has encouraged both the theological mushiness of those who say they are “spiritual, not religious” as well as the unfiltered fury that has come to characterize both ends of the political spectrum. “It seems like we live in a Manichaean universe, with vitriolic extremes,” said Kathryn Lofton, associate professor of American studies and religious studies at Yale. “That’s not unrelated to the lack of tempering authority. ‘Religious authority’ is no longer clergy in the pulpit saying ‘Vote for Eisenhower,’ but forwarded URL links or gossip exchanges in chat rooms. There is no referee.”
For a very long time, Protestant leaders were those referees. If individual impiety flourished in centuries past, churches still wielded significant control over civic culture: the symbols, standards and sexual mores that most of the populace respected in public, if not always in private. Today, more and more Americans openly accept extramarital sex, homosexuality and other outrages to traditional Christian morality. They question the Protestant civil religion that has undergirded our common life for so long.
The idea of Protestant civil religion sounds strange in a country that prides itself on secularism and religious tolerance. However, America’s religious free market has never been entirely free. The founding fathers prized freedom of conscience, but they did not intend to purge society of Protestant influence (they had deep suspicions of Catholicism). Most believed that churches helped to restrain the excesses of mob democracy. Since then, theology has shaped American laws regarding marriage, public oaths and the bounds of free speech. For most of our history, the loudest defenders of the separation of church and state were not rogue atheists, but Protestants worried about Catholics seeking financing for parochial schools or scheming their way into public office to take orders only from mitered masters in Rome.
Activists on both the left and the right tend to forget this irony of the First Amendment: it has been as much a weapon of religious oppression as a safeguard for liberty. In the 19th and early 20th century, when public school teachers read from a Protestant translation of the Bible in class, many Americans saw benign reinforcement of American values. If Catholic parents complained, officials told them that their Roman dogma was their own private concern. The underlying logic here was not religious neutrality.
The Protestant bias of the American public sphere has mellowed over time, but it still depends on “Christian secularism,” said Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, a political scientist at Northwestern University. This is a “political stance” premised on a “chiefly Protestant notion of religion understood as private assent to a set of propositional beliefs,” she told me. Other traditions, such as Judaism and Islam and to some degree Catholicism, do not frame faith in such rationalist terms, or accept the same distinction between internal conviction and public argument. The very idea that it is possible to cordon off personal religious beliefs from a secular town square depends on Protestant assumptions about what counts as “religion,” even if we now mask these sectarian foundations with labels like “Judeo-Christian.”
Conservative Christian activists hold those sectarian foundations more dearly than they admit, and they are challenging the Obama administration’s efforts to frame access to contraception and same-sex marriage as civil rights immune to the veto of “private” conscience. Alan Sears, president of the legal advocacy organization Alliance Defending Freedom, sees an unprecedented threat to religious liberty in the harsh fines facing employers who refuse to cover contraception in their insurance programs. “It is a death penalty. It is a radical change,” he told me. “It’s one thing when you’re debating about public space, but it’s another when you say, if you don’t surrender your conscience, you’re out of business.”
Barry Lynn, the director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (an organization that until 1972 was named, tellingly, Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State), sees things differently. He worries about what might happen if an unpredictable Supreme Court agrees to hear conservative Christians’ challenges to the contraception mandate, or their pleas for exemptions for charities that accept federal grants but discriminate on the basis of religion in hiring. “The court could create something vastly more dangerous than corporate free speech: a ‘corporate conscience’ claim,” Mr. Lynn, a lawyer and an ordained minister, told me. “These cases could become as significant for the redefinition of religious liberty as Roe v. Wade was a rearticulation of the right to privacy.”
These legal efforts are less an attempt to redefine religious liberty than a campaign to preserve Christians’ historic right to police the boundary between secular principles and religious beliefs. Only now that conservative Christians have less control over organs of public power, they cannot rely on the political process. Now that the “nones” are declaring themselves, and more Americans — including many Christians — see birth control as a medical necessity rather than a sin, Mr. Sears sees a stark course of action for the Catholic and evangelical business owners he represents: “Litigation is all that our clients have.” Their problem, however, is more fundamental than legal precedent. Their problem is that America’s Christian consensus is fragmenting. We are left groping for something far messier: an evolving, this-worldly, compromise.
Molly Worthen is an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Chris Stevenson investigates the indispensability of faith to the American experiment in self-governance.