According to the Public Religion Research Institute, 54 percent of Americans believe religious liberty is being threatened today. Those who agree include:
Republicans (80 percent)
Senior adults, age 65+ (61 percent)
Catholics (55 percent)
Mainline Protestants (53 percent)
Independents (51 percent)
However, many Americans believe that religious freedom is not threatened:
Young adults (59 percent)
Democrats (55 percent)
Younger Americans, ages 18-29 (54 percent).
When asked to identify the greatest problem regarding religion in public life:
25 percent cite government interference with free religious practice
24 percent cite religious groups attempting to pass laws that force their beliefs on others
9 percent cite the lack of protection for smaller religious groups.
Taken together, what do these findings mean?
First, there is not a clear consensus that threats to religious liberty are a serious problem in the United States. Nearly as many worry about religion being forced on them as are concerned about government interfering with religious practice. If 70 percent of us are not worried about the removal of religion from public places, clearly this issue does not trouble the majority of Americans.
Second, Christians who worry about religious liberty are those whose beliefs are most threatened. For instance, white evangelicals are obviously more committed to personal evangelism than the religiously unaffiliated, so evangelicals are more concerned about freedom of speech that protects their ability to share their faith.
Evangelicals, Republicans, senior adults, and Catholics are typically more conservative in their views on issues such as gay marriage. As a result, they feel threatened by litigation restricting their ability to exercise such religious convictions. Younger Americans are typically more tolerant on such social issues, so they are less worried about their ability to voice their beliefs.
Third, a growing consensus sees religion not only as irrelevant but as dangerous. I’ve written recently on this viewpoint, which claims that religion causes terrorist attacks such as 9/11, distracts us from present problems by focusing on eternity, uses resources to build buildings rather than care for people, and represents outdated, superstitious mythology.
Best-selling author and atheist Richard Dawkins claims that religion is a virus in the software of humanity that must be expunged. Christopher Hitchens declared that religion “poisons everything.” As the popularity of “angry atheists” continues, we can expect increased intolerance of religious speech and acts.
Fourth, religious liberty is a significant issue in partisan political debate. Years ago I was told the three steps necessary to political success: (1) convince voters they have an enemy; (2) persuade them that I can defeat their enemy; and (3) ask them for their vote and financial support so I can solve their problem. If I can convince you that your religious freedom is in jeopardy, or that religious zealots are seeking to impose their beliefs on you, I am more likely to secure such support. However, the fact that an issue like religious liberty can be used for political gain does not make it less serious or relevant.
Is religious liberty in fact threatened in America today? In my view, the question should be made more specific. There is in face no such thing as “religious liberty,” only religious liberties. Our debate should focus on specific matters of faith and public practice.
For instance, can conservative evangelicals win elections? Clearly they can, as evangelical David Brat demonstrated when he defeated heavily-favored Eric Cantor in Virginia’s recent Republican congressional primary.
Can churches and Christian groups meet in public schools? According to a June 11, 2014 ruling by the Supreme Court, they can. A federal appeals court ruled last April that New York City officials can ban churches from holding services in their school buildings, but Mayor de Blasio said he would allow such meetings to continue.
Can Christians in business refuse to serve homosexuals? A baker in Colorado was ordered to make wedding cakes for gay couples and undergo sensitivity training. Can Christians who believe homosexuality is reversible offer such “conversion therapy” to clients? Not in New Jersey and California; similar bans are being considered by other states.
Can Christian groups on college campuses exclude homosexuals from membership? Not according to the Supreme Court. Can they exclude those who disagree with their beliefs from running for election as a leader in their organization? A growing number of colleges and universities say no.
Can churches refuse to conduct gay weddings? Not in Denmark, where homosexual couples have won the right to get married in any church they choose. Will this become the trend in the United States?
Is it becoming more difficult for Christians to express their faith in public? A report prepared by the Family Research Council and the Liberty Institute listed these examples of rising discrimination against Christians:
A U.S. Army Reserve training presentation recently called evangelical Christians “religious extremists,” listing them alongside al Qaeda, Hamas, and the Ku Klux Klan. And New York Governor Andrew Cuomo recently declared that right-to-life Christians “have no place in the state of New York.” Will such opposition to conservative Christians escalate?
In conclusion, is religious liberty being threatened in America? If you believe that homosexual activity is forbidden by Scripture and is therefore wrong, you are clearly on the wrong side of public opinion and can expect growing restrictions on your freedom of speech and religious convictions. If you want to express your faith publicly, you can expect opposition and discrimination in some parts of our country.
If, however, you want to be salt and light in our dark and lost world, no court in the land can defeat your witness. Early Christians had far fewer religious freedoms than we enjoy today. Subjects of Rome were made to worship the emperor; Christians were often targeted for wholesale persecution and slaughter; believers had no legal protection for their faith. Yet they “turned the world upside down” (Acts 17:6, KJV) and launched the largest spiritual movement in human history.
How did they do it? They demonstrated their faith by their love (John 13:35). They met felt need to meet spiritual need. They saw the secular authorities not as enemies to be defeated but as people for whom to pray (1 Timothy 2:2). They did not mount a “culture war,” but gave their lives to a movement of subversive service and grace.
“The Life-Light blazed in the darkness; the darkness couldn’t put it out” (John 1:5, The Message).