As we head into the fall of 2014, the world seems to be a very dark and uncertain place for those who practice the Christian faith. Between the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria (and the resulting slaughter and displacement of Christians in the middle east) and the seemingly relentless advance of secularism and rejection of traditional Christian values in the West, many Christians are wondering how Christianity can survive and advance in our modern world. In this edition of Radio Free Acton, Acton Institute Co-Founder and President Rev. Robert A. Sirico talks on this topic with Os Guinness, public intellectual and author most recently of Reniassance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times. Guinness reminds us that our generation is not the first generation of Christians to face a world in flux, and gives advice on how Christians should face the uncertain future.
Many people once viewed politics merely as a form entertainment. We could all collectively laugh at the likes of Edwin Edwards even if he was notoriously corrupt. Many folks in Louisiana embraced the former governor for his antics and not merely for his ability to fix every problem in the state. I’m certainly not defending Edwards’s criminal past, but now we look to every politician to solve society’s problems, as if politics could. Because politics is now life and death for so many, it has become too serious for entertainers.
Now the deaths of famous people like Robin Williams are routinely politicized. You’ve probably seen this if you pay attention to social media, 24 hour news shows, or talk radio. Over a decade ago, the Paul Wellstone funeral turned into partisan pep rally for rigid collectivism and electoral success. Politics is everywhere and now in everything. It’s saturated in sports, education, the military, the weather, and history, to just name a few. My own alma mater, The University of Mississippi, is looking to shed its well known and affectionate nickname “Ole Miss” because it could be perceived as politically incorrect.
Now that death is becoming more and more politicized, it’s a powerful reminder of the surge of secularism in society. Death needs to be politicized to give death meaning given that politics is becoming all consuming and the pinnacle of life for so many. Politicizing death expresses, perhaps unbeknown to those guilty of it, this sentiment that there is little or nothing of worth beyond this world. More important to them is the here and now and attempting the impossible, fixing society through politics.
The first kind of religious freedom to appear in the Western world was “freedom of the church.” Although that freedom has been all but ignored by the Courts in the past few decades, its place in American jurisprudence is once again being recognized.
Notre Dame law professor Richard Garnett explains how we should think about and defend the liberty of religious institutions:
To embrace this idea as still-relevant is to claim that religious institutions have a distinctive place in our constitutional order—and not only a distinctively worrisome or harmful one. It is to suggest that churches are not “just like the Boy Scouts” and that, while they to a large extent function in civil society in the same way and deliver the same Tocquevillian benefits as any number of voluntary associations, they are, in the end, different.
True, it is increasingly difficult, within the boundaries of argument set down by some versions of liberal political theory, to justify, on principled grounds, special treatment for religious liberty. Still, in our history and tradition, “religious” institutions and authorities have acted, and have been regarded, as special and distinct, whether or not “religion” has been understood as neatly separate from “culture,” “conscience,” or “morality.” We live under a written Constitution that “singles out” religion and we inhabit a tradition in which “church” and “state” have, in a special way, cooperated and contended. If it is anachronistic to invoke the freedom of the church, it seems even more ahistorical to deny the distinctive (for better or worse) place and role of religious actors in that tradition, and today.
Before I try to convince you that Katha Pollitt is dangerously wrong, let me attempt to explain why her opinion is significant. Pollitt was educated at Harvard and the Columbia School of the Arts and has taught at Princeton. She has won a National Magazine Award for Columns and Commentary, an NEA grant, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a National Book Critics Circle Award.
She is, in other words, the kind of politically progressive pundit whose opinions, when originally expressed, are considered outré — and then within a few months or years, are considered mainstream in progressive circles.
However, in her latest column, “Why It’s Time to Repeal the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” Pollitt is but a few minutes ahead of the liberal curve.
She begins with the stunningly obtuse claim that, “In the not-too-distant future, it’s entirely possible that religious freedom will be the only freedom we have left—a condition for which we can blame the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.”
Pollitt is smart enough to know that claim is nonsense. She’s also smart enough to know that there are plenty of people who are gullible enough to believe it could be true.
Regarding the Hobby Lobby decision and the Supreme Court, I believe the National Review editors summed it up best: “That this increase in freedom makes some people so very upset tells us more about them than about the Court’s ruling.”
I address this rapid politicization and misunderstanding of religious liberty and natural rights in today’s Acton commentary. The vitriolic reaction to the ruling is obviously not a good sign for religious liberty and we’re almost certainly going to continue down the path of losing rights of conscience and free expression. Obviously, I hope I’m wrong. But I wanted to step back and take a more comprehensive look at where we are now.
One point I make in the piece is that our federal lawmakers no longer hold a consensus to protect religious liberty, as they did with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. Back then, there was overwhelming unification and bipartisanship to protect and strengthen religious liberty, that is a thing of the past and it has been swallowed up by partisan politics. Our collective partisan politics is becoming bigger than our once common understanding of natural rights.
Another point I stress is that there is an obvious difference on the very meaning of religious liberty that cuts through our country. This is well known to those who pay attention to these issues. Many saw the Hobby Lobby ruling not as a ruling in favor of the rights of conscience and liberty, but only a temporary setback in divorcing religion from public human affairs.
The Supreme Court ruling is being politicized in a myriad of vicious ways and that by itself is a bad sign for religious liberty. It will be a tough task going forward to educate people on the necessity of a vibrant understanding of religious liberty and natural rights that promotes the common good.
While in college, did you ever join the Catholic Student Association, Campus Crusade for Christ, or some other student religious organization? If so, you might want to leave that off your resume. A new study in the sociology journal Social Currents found that applicants who expressed a religious identity were 26 percent less likely to receive a response from employers.
For the experiment, the researchers sent out resumes to companies in the South from fictional recent graduates of flagship universities located in the South. They signaled religious affiliation on the resume by listing membership in campus religious organizations such as the “University of Alabama _______ Association,” where the blank is replaced with a religious identity (e.g., atheist, Catholic, evangelical, Muslim). They also sent out resumes with similar information but left off any religious identifiers.
There is an informative podcast on a new book titled The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom over at the Library of Law and Liberty. The author, Steven D. Smith, is the Warren Distinguished Professor of Law, University of San Diego and Co-Executive Director of the USD Institute for Law and Religion. Smith challenges the popular notion that American religious freedom was merely an enlightenment revolt from European Christendom and was meant to uplift a secular interpretation of the First Amendment.
Smith will be a guest writer over at their blog for the month of July. Below is an excerpt from the description of the podcast:
Our conversation begins with the history of the ratification of the First Amendment. What do we make of the fact that the religion clauses were scarcely debated in the Congress that approved them? Smith argues that this should dissolve any notion that a grand constitutional moment occurred and that gave us the religion clauses as “articles of faith” in secularism. We discuss Smith’s view that the lack of debate owed to an existing consensus that wanted to prevent the national government establishing a national church while the states would continue their established churches, in some cases, and other lesser forms of religious influence in their laws. Contrary, Smith argues, to a national standard of religious freedom or secularism, the constitutional course was “contestation” or an ongoing conflict between religious and secular claims. Thus the Court’s separationist jurisprudence of mid twentieth century, Smith discusses, was a departure from original understanding of religious liberty and its practice for most of our history.
Smith also discusses and disputes the view that American religious freedom is an outcome of the Enlightenment. His controversial claim is that it is a recovery of a key concept of Western civilization, freedom of the church, and, its later Protestant development, freedom of the “inner church” or conscience. Recovery is here stressed because it was modern political development, Smith notes, that had subordinated the church to the state and to be stripped of institutional freedom.
Listen to the podcast: