Could Religious Liberty Help End the Culture War?

Published May 6, 2021


Recently, Gallup released polling data indicating that fewer than half of Americans are members of churches, mosques or synagogues. In 1937, 73 percent of Americans claimed some form of religious membership. Today that figure is 47 percent. This decline plays into what sociologists call the “secularization thesis,” the presumption that as modernity barrels onward, religiosity slowly gives way to rationalism and technocratic ways of devising meaning.

But before secularism claims complete victory over religiosity, note that the Gallup poll reveals an almost even split between the two. Religiosity and secularism are not going anywhere, even as they interact in troubling ways via the “culture war.” As the chasm that separates these worldviews seems only to widen, there is all the more reason to find ways to coexist peaceably—and a return to religious freedom will be a necessary ingredient for a more tranquil future.

Everyone, religious and non-religious alike, has an interest in defending religious liberty if we hope to have a public square that accurately reflects American demography. Even if you are not religious, consider that the First Amendment protections that all Americans enjoy emanate from a religious milieu. The Framers recognized that, before individuals are citizens of the state, they are persons attempting to make meaning and bring order to their lives. Everyone desires to live in accordance with what they believe to be true about the world.

The architect of our Constitution, James Madison, expressed this sentiment in his Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments. “Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society,” he wrote, “he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe.” Madison argues that religion recognizes realities that impress truths upon individuals prior to the authority of the state. Whether someone is expressly religious or not, every conscience must reckon with what is true or false, and then seek to live accordingly. The presumption of liberty means that we grant such freedoms insofar as they pose no unmistakable threat to society.

As a conservative evangelical Christian, I have a stake in protecting the right of expression of views I disagree with—as much as I would hope to persuade you to protect mine, too. I use my religious liberty to proclaim the gospel and its implications for all of life—just as a non-Christian possesses the right to proclaim his or her worldview, persuade others of its conclusions and live according to its implications. Our rights are reciprocally bound with one another’s. The political philosopher Leo Strauss captured the political tension we must all balance if we hope to maintain a habitable system in which people disagree: “the political question par excellence is how to reconcile order which is not oppression with freedom that is not license.” That, in summary, is the delicate balancing act of liberal democracy.

If religious freedom is going to work, it will require virtues that are in short supply, such as empathy and goodwill. Religious freedom requires me to believe that, despite what I may assume, others’ moral and religious arguments are being made in good faith. It forces me to reckon with our common humanity and shared desires. Religious liberty channels our better angels in that it appeals to magnanimity as a form of cultural currency and moral grammar.

To be sure, as a conservative evangelical, I hold to convictions about the exclusivity of Jesus Christ and the nature of gender and sexuality that would cause many readers to recoil. I’m not contending for religious liberty just to be left alone, but to advocate for truths that benefit the common good and human flourishing. A robust understanding of religious liberty requires a humble understanding that cultural orthodoxies will ebb and flow, because today’s victors can easily fall out of fashion. The back-and-forth of cultural exchange allows freedom to prosper, better ideas to gain traction and dictatorships that rely on stifling orthodoxies to be rejected.

The decline of religious liberty is a major reason our culture wars are so brutal. By looking to the government to adjudicate our divisions, we’ve outsourced debate on what is true or false. We ask a central authority to declare one side the victor and the other side the loser. Government cannot be agnostic about everything, but the great thing about religious liberty is that, rather than looking to the government to decide every important question, it allows each person freedom of conscience to decide how to act. Perhaps our political culture would be healthier if questions of ultimate meaning were not on the ballot every four years or divined by Supreme Court justices, and instead, were worked out in institutions, local communities and ultimately, in individual consciences.

Secularization is ascendent today. But the branch of religious conservatism I represent is not going anywhere, and we have to find ways to live together. Deliberation and persuasion must rise to the surface of our public discourse to settle conflicts. I’m going to continue to exercise my religious liberty to point to the truths that I believe are necessary for human beings and societies to flourish. If you think I’m wrong, convince me—don’t banish me.

Andrew T. Walker is a Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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