The Magazine

Religious Freedom Under the Gun

The Obama administration neglects a key foreign policy issue.

Jul 16, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 41 • By THOMAS F. FARR
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Once upon a time (in the late 18th century), anti-Catholic penal laws in Scotland criminalized the mass and outlawed priests. While Scotland may not be moving in so radical a direction today, it would be foolish to presume that the growing intolerance of traditional Christianity in Europe and North America cannot devolve into persecutory laws and practices. In Canada, it is estimated that since the adoption of gay marriage in 2005, between 200 and 300 proceedings have been launched against defenders of marriage in courts, human rights commissions, and employment boards. The Catholic bishop of Calgary was threatened with litigation and charged with a “human rights violation” for circulating a letter within his diocese repeating Catholic teaching on marriage. (Intimidated, he settled out of court.)

At Oxford, Bishop Tartaglia (who seems unlikely to be intimidated) said that he expected one day to be standing before a judge because of his public defense of Catholic teaching. Some at the conference made it clear that they simply would not brook any “special” consideration for religious ideas, which they argued had no more relevance to human flourishing than any other idea under the sun.

In short, religion in much of the West is no longer seen as intrinsic to human dignity and social flourishing. It is generally understood as merely an opinion and, as a species, a dangerous opinion at that. While it is fine to practice your religion in churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples, democracy requires that you leave it there. To bring it into politics endangers democracy.

This malevolent idea, which was famously championed by the American political philosopher John Rawls, is gaining considerable purchase in our own country. It gives reason for profound concern, not only for religious individuals but for the whole concept of democracy grounded in ordered liberty.

And yet, at the very moment when religious liberty is under sustained pressure around the world, contemporary scholarship is demonstrating that societies desperately need it. The empirical work of sociologists Brian J. Grim and Roger Finke, for instance, shows that religious freedom is highly correlated with the consolidation and longevity of democracy, and with other goods, such as economic development, the equality of women, and the absence of violent religious extremism. 

The Obama administration has paid little attention to these data. Three recent public statements help clarify why: They suggest the stage is being set to edge traditional religious ideas out of the public sphere, both domestically and in foreign policy.

In his March 2009 speech at Notre Dame, President Obama asserted: “It is beyond our capacity as human beings to know with certainty what God .  .  . asks of us.” In other words, religion is emotive; it contains no basis for knowing with certainty anything—that God exists, or that each of us is equal in his eyes, or that to kill an innocent human being is always and everywhere wrong.

Second, in a December 2009 speech at Georgetown University, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the content of religious liberty, and of another right she believed equally important, this way: “To fulfill their potential, people .  .  . must be free to worship, associate, and to love in the way that they choose.” This lineup of fundamental rights has become her mantra (see Clinton’s May 24 remarks on the release of the Human Rights Report).

Third, in August 2010 federal judge Vaughn Walker overturned a California constitutional amendment affirming that marriage is a union between one man and one woman. In a ruling that pleased progressives, Walker declared the affirmation unconstitutional partly on the grounds that the reasons adduced in favor of marriage, and against same-sex unions, were based on “moral and religious beliefs.”

In sum: There is no rational content to religion; religious freedom means the right to worship, but not to bring religiously informed moral judgments into political life; the “right” to love as one chooses is comparable to religious freedom; to make religious arguments against that right is unconstitutional. 

These propositions are not yet embedded in American law and culture, but they are no longer outliers. They seem intended to continue the removal from public life of traditional religion-based arguments, which stand in the way of sexual liberation and its fruits—such as the rights to abortion, sodomy, pornography, no- fault divorce, and (already in six states and the District of Columbia) same-sex marriage. They mirror Obama administration health care regulations that define religion as only what happens inside a house of worship. 

Recent Blog Posts