The Perils of Religious Liberty
by Yuval Levin, First Things:
On January 24, 1774, the young James Madison, twenty-two years old and two years out of Princeton, wrote an exasperated letter to his college friend William Bradford, who lived in Pennsylvania. In Virginia, Madison wrote, a season of intolerance had dawned. “That diabolical, hell-conceived principle of persecution rages,” and perfectly well-meaning men of religion were finding themselves imprisoned for expressing any deviation from the views of the dominant Anglican Church. He told his friend that he had “squabbled and scolded, abused, and ridiculed so long” about this that he had no more patience for the fight. “So I leave you,” he concluded, “to pity me and pray for Liberty of Conscience to revive among us.”
Of course, Madison ultimately did more than beg for pity and prayer. He made religious liberty a foremost cause of his political action. And he enshrined in our Constitution, and so etched in our national consciousness, a principled and practical commitment to that liberty that has helped us remain a free society ever since.
These days, however, many religious and moral traditionalists in America can easily relate to the young Madison’s anguished plea for pity and prayer—or at the very least for a revival of liberty of conscience. In our time, too, a season of intolerance has dawned. Over the past few years, the Obama administration has actively worked to isolate, vilify, and intimidate opponents of abortion, for instance, making it increasingly difficult for them to run a business or operate in the public square in accordance with their convictions. The Supreme Court, meanwhile, has declared the traditional understanding of marriage anathema, and left wide open many vexing questions about the standing of individuals, groups, and institutions who continue to uphold that understanding.
Major corporations have launched brazen attacks on communities seeking to carve out spaces for competing views on such questions. The key organs of popular culture have declared dissenting views on sexuality and marriage unfit for polite conversation, setting off occasional high-profile witch hunts against dissenters and enabling an environment of intimidation well beyond those. Prominent academics and civil liberties organizations have raised the prospect of stripping churches of their tax exemptions and pursuing litigation to require private companies and civic groups to be led and staffed by people who pledge allegiance to the moral creed of the left. Major newspapers have begun to put the phrase “religious freedom” in scare quotes, as if everybody understands that it is just a cover for bigotry abusing the sacred name of liberty.
Much of this might have seemed unimaginable even a decade ago, and that sudden collapse in our standing in society has left many traditionalists reeling. For some, this dark turn offers proof that the American project of virtuous democratic capitalism has always been inherently untenable: Ever since the nation’s founding, if not since the dawn of the Enlightenment, the liberal society has been at war with its own moral foundations, they argue. It is now on the verge of demolishing them altogether, and the only real question is why it has taken so long. Now that the reckoning is upon us, we need to seek refuge for traditional ways of life where we can and accustom ourselves to the manners of exiles in our own society.