Why Such Hostility About Religious Liberty?
Religion & Liberty Online

Why Such Hostility About Religious Liberty?

In a nation founded upon (at least in part) the ability to practice one’s religious beliefs without government interference, we Americans are in a weird spot. It seems that everywhere we turn, folks who practice their religious beliefs are under assault. Again, weird, since most of us who do practice our faith don’t try to cram it down anyone’s throat. Even groups like the Jehovah’s Witnesses – well-known for their door-to-door proselytizing – are happy to step off your front porch if you aren’t interested in what they have to say.

Carissa Mulder, at Public Discourse, puzzles over this hostility towards religious practice in America. Part of it, she believes, is that Americans perceive that religious folk want to have a say in their fellow Americans’ sex lives.

This is a curious attitude, given that no religion in America has the legal ability to force anyone, adherent or not, to follow its teachings regarding sexual morality or anything else. An evangelical Christian can impregnate his girlfriend and keep his head firmly attached to his body, unlike the situation faced by Claudio in Measure for Measure. A Catholic can buy a package of condoms at the local drugstore. The clerk won’t ask to check his religious identification before ringing up the purchase. And women of any religious persuasion can obtain an abortion in all fifty states.

Why, then, does it seem that a growing number of Americans view religious liberty with suspicion, if not outright hostility?

It would seem, at first glance, that same-sex marriage is to blame, says Mulder. After all, many religions believe marriage should be between one man and one woman, and this seems to be THE defining issue in American religion and culture today. But is this really the case? Is same-sex marriage to “blame” when it comes to hostility about religion in America? Mulder says no:

The problem is that many Americans are offended by the existence of an opposing view. The fact that someone, somewhere, dares to voice disapproval of their sexual behavior is, it now seems, offensive in and of itself.

We Americans have come to believe that sexual license has become a fundamental right. And more than that, Americans want “the right to consequence-free sexual intimacy.” The courts of our great country have upheld this desire (in cases like  Roe v. WadeLawrence v. Texas and Brown v. Buhman.) Thus, says Mulder, we have a confused population: the courts say we can do anything we want, sexually-speaking, but you religious folk are still trying to say we can’t. Therefore, we don’t like you religious folk.

This is exacerbated by traditional Christianity’s refusal either to conform to the spirit of the age or to go away and be quiet. The erosion of the state’s role in upholding public morality both foreshadowed and led to the cultural rejection of religion’s right to judge the morality or immorality of certain acts.

Evangelicals still loudly proclaim that one should “wait until marriage,” even if that command is largely honored in the breach. The Catholic Church has not relaxed its prohibition on contraception, even if many of its adherents ignore its teaching or even loudly oppose it. Both Evangelicals and Catholics (and those members of mainline churches who hold to traditionalist norms) grapple with the culture on multiple fronts—praying outside abortion clinics, attending the March for Life, objecting to FDA approval of abortifacients, decrying pornography, etc. In short, they have remained a thorn in the side of an ever-more-permissive culture for over forty years. (Orthodox Christianity, Orthodox Judaism, and Islam also adhere to strict moral norms regarding sexual behavior, but attract less attention because of their status as minority religions.)

This cultural attitude has led to religious liberty’s current embattled position. Catholic bishops teach that contraception is a sin? Break them. The charities they oversee must, in some way, be forced to provide free contraception and abortifacients to employees. Contraception has been available for over forty years, but now, suddenly, we must force business owners and religious orders to provide drugs and devices they believe to be sinful.

Proponents of the sexual revolution have thus garnered legal support for their viewpoint of “anything goes” sex and now are attempting do just what they accused religious folks of doing: cramming their beliefs down our throats.

To illustrate the degree of the incursion on religious conscience, religious liberty advocates often compare the contraception mandate to requiring all Jewish deli owners to serve pork sandwiches or requiring a Muslim business owner to pick up the tab for his employee’s heart-healthy red wine. This is a valid comparison, but perhaps the average American thinks, “Oh, the government would never do that.” And they’re right; probably the government never would. Why? Because food is considered too unimportant to be bothered with, whereas consequence-free sex has become an American totem.

We want to do whatever we want, and no one can even mention the possibility that it’s wrong. In fact, we don’t even want to hear the word “wrong.” Free love, baby: tune in, drop out, and don’t talk to me about religion.

Read “Sex, Drugs and Religious Liberty” at Public Discourse.


Elise Hilton

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