Acton Institute Powerblog

The Confusing State Of Religious Liberty In America

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Martyrs of Uganda Church, Detroit, Mich.
Martyrs of Uganda Church, Detroit, Mich.

Are you confused about religious liberty? Can I do this or say that without losing my job, a friendship, my freedom? Will I get my kid taken away from me? Is there a difference between freedom of religion and freedom of worship? Yeah, we’re all a little confused.

At least we’re in good company. Peter Lawler is confused as well, and he shares his confusion at The Federalist. Of course, everyone agrees that church and state should be separate, says Lawler, but then things get wonky. At one point in American history, we could say that the majority of Americans shared some common religious values, especially regarding marriage and family, regardless of our faith. That’s clearly not the case any longer. In fact, Lawler claims, there are more and more Americans who believe that religion is a spoiler: it gets in the way of freedom.

More and more Americans—although still a fairly small minority—agree with our “new atheists” that “religion spoils everything,” that almost all of the repressive pathologies that have distorted the world can be traced to religious authority. A great number of Americans have proudly moved from the conformism of organized religion into an allegedly more spiritual or privatized realm of personalized belief, which skeptics call the “religion of me,” just as some have moved away from personal religion altogether in the direction of pantheism and kinds of Buddhism.

However, those of us with strong religious beliefs are feeling the pinch: we are losing the freedom to practice our faith. Lawler uses the HHS mandate as an example: certain Christians do not want to be forced to pay for birth control and abortions as part of employee insurance. Lawler’s reading of the situation is dire: “The situation of Catholics in America is becoming more and more like the situation of the dissidents under communism; persecution for one’s faith is just around the corner.”

What to do? Lawler leans to a libertarian stance: get government out of our lives as much as possible. However, we need religion in the public square. Without it, we de-humanize, well, humans. And that dehumanization – the loss of the knowledge that we are all created in a good God’s image and likeness – means a less stable, less prosperous way of life.

We see that members of lower middle class and lower are actually become de-churched, for roughly the same reasons their families are becoming unsustainable. Right now we have the sad paradox that those Americans who most obviously need the assistance of charitable churches are losing it, just as we observe that those who are returning to our churches are also detaching themselves from their fellow fallen creatures who also falling or failing in their economic and relational lives. We can hope our churches will do more for sophisticated Americans in chastening the rights of liberty with the charitable (but not really political) duties of equality. That’s what the freedom of relational creatures is largely for, after all.

Confused about religious liberty? Here’s the low-down: losing our religion and religious liberty makes for a miserable place to live.

Read “The State Of Our Religious Liberty Is Confusing” at The Federalist.

Democracy In America

Democracy In America

In 1831 Alexis de Tocqueville, a young French aristocrat and ambitious civil servant, made a nine-month journey throughout America. The result was Democracy in America, a monumental study of the life and institutions of the evolving nation.

Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.


  • MBerka

    Dissidents under communism included Catholics, and there is a rather large gap between being affected by laws contrary to one’s beliefs, and being unable to build churches. While initially interesting, the conclusion is stereotypical: the true conflict involves the boundaries of one person’s freedom versus another’s. Does a minaret infringe on the people around it? Is ritual slaughter justified? Can a parent turn a child’s health over to religious experts rather than medical ones? There must be constant negotiation over this balance. The loss of religious freedom would be a disaster, but so would its excess. Does the HHS mandate enable excess sexual freedom at religious freedom’s expense? It depends on one’s vision of the ideal society.

    • anarchobuddy

      I think it’s a mistake to frame the issue of the HHS mandate as one mainly of religious freedom. To me, it’s really one regarding freedom of contract. If an employer and employee freely enter a contract, exchanging labor for pay and benefits, is there really a compelling reason for the state to make sure that that compensation includes birth control? Both the freedom of the employer and employee is being curtailed, and I don’t think the argument can be made that “sexual freedom” (if we are to think of it as having access to birth control) is increased by this mandate. It’s not as if the HHS is increasing the amount of compensation employees receive; they’re only changing the contents of it.

      So, no, there is no freedom in any sense being increased here.