The shrinking role of religion in modern America

Posted Wednesday, Jul. 09, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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allen Surveying the response to last month’s Hobby Lobby decision, I was struck by a comment from progressive Massachusetts senator and possible Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren.

Speaking about the ruling, Warren remarked : “I cannot believe that we live in a world where [we] would even consider letting some big corporation deny the women who work for it access to the basic medical treatments or prescriptions that they need based on vague moral objections.”

I won’t address inaccuracies in the first part of her comment — I did that last week.

And frankly, it’s the latter half that really concerns me, precisely for what it reveals about the deep and growing divide between religious and secular America.

The significance of religion in America has evolved throughout our history, but it has always been regarded with a deep respect across the political spectrum. The reaction from the left to the Hobby Lobby decision indicates that is no longer the case.

In brushing off the religious convictions of the Hobby Lobby owners with such unstinting indifference, Warren describes quite succinctly how many on the secular left view religion today.

In a word: insignificant.

To the senator and those of like minds, faith, it would seem, is not fundamental, defining or life-giving, but vague, casual and intermittent; “more like a hobby,” as Bloomberg columnist Megan McArdle describes it.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in her dissent, seemed to agree about religion’s irrelevance in secular democracy, referring to any effect of the administration’s contraceptive coverage requirement on an individual’s free exercise as “incidental.”

For many Americans whose faith informs everything they do and through which they understand their very existence, relegating faith to the marginal role of “activity” or “hobby” isn’t just ignorant, it’s a threat to our democracy.

Anyone who has cracked a textbook on U.S. history is probably aware that our nation owes its beginning to men and women expressly seeking to secure their own religious freedom, often at great risk to themselves.

As such, it was no accident that free exercise of one’s faith (or no faith at all) is the first freedom listed in our nation’s Bill of Rights, preceding freedom of speech, press and assembly.

Freedom of religion was clearly understood by the drafters as fundamental to the success of the experiment in self-government they were about to propose in the Constitution.

Religious practice was also indispensable to the American idea of ordered liberty.

The 19th-century philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville observed that the presence of religion in America made a distinct difference in the nation’s particular version of democracy, “impos[ing] upon each man some obligations toward mankind,” that a society based on a secular understanding of equality could not.

He was right, and this religiously steeped understanding of freedom has motivated some of the greatest liberation movements, from abolition to civil rights, not to mention some of the most robust humanitarian efforts in modern history — all made possible because as a protected freedom, religion in America was allowed to flourish.

Yet, contemporary secular thinkers seem to be quickly forgetting, or wittingly ignoring, religion’s profound influence on American life by insisting that its role in modern society is increasingly marginal. But such insistence does not make it so.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat writes of “a sense — not universal but widespread — that religious pluralism has broad social benefits, and that the wider society has a practical interest, within reason, in allowing religious communities to pursue moral ends as they see fit.”

His point is an important one. Unlike the right to free contraception of one’s choosing or any other modern entitlement, religious freedom benefits everyone equally, sometimes in ways we fail to recognize or acknowledge.

And we would all be well served to rediscover its value and return it to a place of significance in American democracy.

Cynthia M. Allen is a Star-Telegram editorial writer/columnist. 817-390-7166. Twitter: @cjmallen12

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