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Photo of nine judges of the Supreme Court of the United States in 2022 to illustrate the blog post "The contested nature of religious liberty in today’s America" by Mark Valeri on the OUP blog

The contested nature of religious liberty in today’s America

Several decisions recently made by the United States Supreme Court, along with an escalation in Christian Nationalist rhetoric among right-wing American politicians, have brought the issue of religious liberty to the surface in today’s media. Much of the commentary has focused on a paradox: the concept of religious liberty has increasingly been used to suppress minority or disempowered voices. Such critical commentary, however trenchant, ought not to obscure the need for a reinvigorated idea of religious liberty without its oppressive implications. 

The majority of justices in today’s Court, many of them from Roman Catholic backgrounds, have strengthened protections for religious practice in controversial rulings (not to mention the Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade). In a case that set a United States Postal Service worker against a supervisor who required him to work on the Sabbath, the Court challenged previously held standards that favored employers in such cases. In a highly publicized case, the Court ruled against a state of Washington schoolboard that disciplined a high school football coach who prayed on the school’s football field with students. The Court also ruled against the city of Boston for refusing to fly the flag of a Christian group over the City Hall when it had allowed other interest groups to do so. In addition, the Court sided with a Colorado web designer who refused, on religious grounds, to create web designs for weddings of same-sex couples. In these cases, as in others, the majority opinion of the Court was expressed as a protection of religious liberty in the face of federal, state, and municipal restrictions on religious practice. 

Seen in the light of a more widespread turn in Republican political discourse (and legislation) toward policies often informed by conservative Christian instruction, including restrictions on LGBTQ rights and abortion, such rulings have cast a shadow over the concept of religious freedom. Editorialists have sometimes pitted the principle of religious freedom against other valuable principles such as equality before the law or simple fairness. 

Critique of religious freedom as a principle has precedents in a line of anthropological, philosophical, and historical writing for the past half century. Many twentieth-century critics, from Michel Foucault to Talal Asad, had voiced a deep suspicion about western, Enlightenment-inflected, eighteenth (or late-seventeenth)-century conceptions of religious liberty or secularism—the Locke to Jefferson celebratory narrative—as complicit in imperial politics, statist discipline, and cultural hubris. Critical race theorists often have dismissed self-congratulatory accounts of American religious liberty as a diversion from the story of racial oppression. Historians of the English state have deconstructed the Anglo-American narrative of liberty as, in the end, a mere tool for a Protestant regime in a nationalist form. 

There is much to be said for such criticisms. Yet there is another aspect of American politics in which a recovery of older—even Lockean or other Enlightenment-driven—notions of freedom of conscience and religious liberty may be helpful. Right-wing American politicians increasingly have voiced explicitly Christian nationalist sentiments. At the most recent Faith and Freedom Coalition gala, Donald Trump claimed that he, as President, had upheld the interests of evangelical Christians in his appointment of pro-Christian justices who, among other rulings, invalidated the central tenets of Roe v. Wade. Trump’s presumed rivals for the Republican nomination for President in 2024, Mike Pence and Ron DeSantis included, were also at the gala, competing for evangelical support by arguing that they stood for genuine Christian values even more resolutely than did the former president. 

As one editorialist recently complained, such evidence of Christian nationalism is hardly limited to high-profile proto-campaign events or presidential politicking. Once allied with free-speech movements and freedom of religion platforms, Christian commentators have sometimes advocated strict speech codes, claims that the United States ought to declare itself to be a Christian nation—with laws that follow suit from that claim—and rejection of Islam as an un-American religion. Movements such as Roman Catholic “integralism” and Protestant “dominionism,” along with books such as Stephen Wolfe’s The Case for Christian Nationalism, published by Canon Press in Moscow, Idaho, advocate for an end to religious liberty and for the establishment of a theological-political order in the United States. Such sentiments suggest the intellectual backdrop for recent turns in the Supreme Court and political electioneering. 

They also suggest that scholarly suspicions ought to be tempered by a consideration of how the discourse of freedom of conscience in early Anglo-America, with all of its Enlightenment presumptions, might offer some clues to a recovery of a robust notion of religious liberty. We do not have to accede to the Anglo-American nationalism and imperialism, or the implicit Protestant biases, or the racism of eighteenth-century proponents of religious liberty to appreciate and reformulate some of their ideas about freedom of conscience and the necessity of distinguishing a nation’s wellbeing from any one religious creed. Such a consideration might at least hint at ways to rebuff the worst of the religious politics that afflicts us today.

Featured image: “Supreme Court of the United States – Roberts Court 2022” via Wikimedia Commons, public domain

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