Acton Institute Powerblog

Douthat: Zeitgeist vs. Religious Liberty

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New York Times columnist Ross Douthat tackles the topic of religious liberty with his most recent column, “Defining Religious Liberty Down.” In it, Douthat highlights the public nature of the Bill of Rights’ guarantee of the “free exercise of religion”:

It’s a significant choice of words, because it suggests a recognition that religious faith cannot be reduced to a purely private or individual affair. Most religious communities conceive of themselves as peoples or families, and the requirements of most faiths extend well beyond attendance at a sabbath service — encompassing charity and activism, education and missionary efforts, and other “exercises” that any guarantee of religious freedom must protect.

Many would say that the religious liberty squabbles of today–the HHS mandate debate and last week’s Chick-fil-A fracas, for example–reflect a contemporary confusion about what is actually protected by the Bill of Rights’ “free exercise of religion.” Instead, Douthat posits that the conflict is a result of a present tension between religious values and the modern idea of freedom. This, Douthat argues, is really at the heart of the religious liberty debate.

The question is not whether “the free exercise of religion” allows the government to mandate contraception purchase or regulate businesses according to their values. The question is whether certain religious beliefs of today run so contradictory to the public zeitgeist that, like 15th century Aztec sacrifice rituals, they violate the common good and cannot merit public protection. Those who answer the latter question with a “yes” should quit the emaciated definitions of religious liberty and move on with the debate:

It may seem strange that anyone could look around the pornography-saturated, fertility-challenged, family-breakdown-plagued West and see a society menaced by a repressive puritanism. But it’s clear that this perspective is widely and sincerely held.

It would be refreshing, though, if it were expressed honestly, without the “of course we respect religious freedom” facade.

If you want to fine Catholic hospitals for following Catholic teaching, or prevent Jewish parents from circumcising their sons, or ban Chick-fil-A in Boston, then don’t tell religious people that you respect our freedoms. Say what you really think: that the exercise of our religion threatens all that’s good and decent, and that you’re going to use the levers of power to bend us to your will.

There, didn’t that feel better? Now we can get on with the fight.

Andrew Knot


  • jameswyse

    Good to get to the heart of the matter. Too often people talk around the issue.

  • Jonann

    This piece contains what has to be the most misunderstood quote anywhere, namely, “The question is not whether…etc”, being circulating and be “liked” on Facebook. It’s laughable that right wing adherents are quoting it and the left is liking this ridiculous article. If anything, that particular paragraph only underscores the idea that religions should tend to their own concerns and stop trying to run everyone else’s life. What is contrary to the public zeitgeist is the notion that religious people should somehow be able to legislate morality for everyone else. The free exercise of religion in no way should legitimize the unnecessary intrusion of belief into the lives of those who do not share the same beliefs. Where religion seeks to legitimize discrimination it has no business being tolerated. If we allow the free exercise of religion in a “laissez faire” fashion we are going to have to allow quite a bit of strangeness in the public sphere. The United States has separation of church and state for a good reason. Pope Leo XIII realized this when he wrote against the “heresy of Americanism” condemning our separation of church and state. Each day we move closer toward fascist totalitarianism but it is not coming from those who say religion has no business saying what health care services there can be or whether or not someone can discriminate based on belief. It’s coming from those who want to mix religion and government.

    • Roger McKinney

      Actually, a laissez faire approach to religious liberty would prevent religious people from using the power of government to impose their ideas on others. Laissez faire is short for laissez-nous faire, when means leave us alone.

      The libertarian (of preferably the liberty) position is to limit the state to the protection of life, liberty and property. The state should not legislate morality beyond the prohibition of murder, violence, rape, enslavement, theft, etc.

      Of course, the liberty position would make abortion illegal, not for religious reasons, but because it is murder. But it would prevent the state from having any say in what constitutes marriage; homosexuals could marry animals if they wanted to. And it would not prevent people from destroying their minds and bodies with drugs or alcohol.

      • Jonann

        These are good points/clarifications. Thanks for making them. However, they’re not what I have heard from the libertarians whom I know that are identifying with the Republican party and the cause of the Right. Of course I wouldn’t identify any point that Ross Douthat makes with the “liberty position.”

        As far as homosexuals marrying animals goes, I haven’t met one yet who has proposed this. However, in the 1970s I was aware of a fellow in Alaska who wanted to marry his dog. However, the dog was female.

      • Agreed. There should be freedom to discriminate based on almost anything.

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