Americans of all ages and faiths are increasingly expressing concern about the erosion of one of America’s core founding principles – religious liberty. A recent Barna poll found that Christians are the most distressed faith group in America regarding religious freedom, with 52 percent expressing concern. In addition, such worry has increased significantly since 2012 for Americans of other faiths, from 19 percent to 32 percent. Millennials (19-30 year olds) who are worried about religious freedom spiked from 32 to 55 percent. Surprisingly, even among atheists, agnostics, and the religiously unaffiliated, concern over the erosion of religious freedom has grown from 23 percent to 32 percent since 2012.
As I reviewed these poll results, it brought to mind the words of one of my household’s favorite patriots Nathanael Greene, who said: “America must raise an empire of permanent duration, supported upon the grand pillars of Truth, Freedom, and Religion, encouraged by the smiles of Justice and defended by her own patriotic sons.”
Greene wrote that challenge to a member of the Second Continental Congress mere months before the official founding of The United States of America. Because of the central role of spiritual faith in America’s revolutionary history, our forefathers saw fit to protect the inalienable right to religious freedom in the very first and primary founding documents of this new experimental country. That fundamental right must be preserved, even in times—no, especially in times—of great discord and difficulty, if America is going to have a chance of breaking the unfortunate downward course of history’s former great civilizations.
The concern expressed in the aforementioned Barna poll seems justified when you consider a growing trend to push not just religion, but religiously motivated people, out of the public sector. Just this week, North Carolina’s model 2015 legislation to balance the religious liberties of public officials with the rapidly changing marriage policy landscape came under attack. A federal lawsuit seeking to undo this commonsense law outrageously claims that public servants who choose to recuse themselves from performing all marriages rather than violate their consciences “believe as a matter of publicly sanctioned religious creed that gays and lesbians are not entitled to the full rights of other citizens.”
This newest lawsuit is only the most recent battlefront in an orchestrated effort to constrain the activities and rights of religious Americans. Consider: the nurses who are told they must participate in abortions or lose their jobs; the florists, photographers, caterers, and farm owners who are told they must embrace same-sex couples who seek to hire them for wedding ceremonies or face fines imposed by the government; the Catholic adoption agencies that are told they must place children with same-sex couples or cease serving orphans; the high school football coaches and parochial schools who are told they are not allowed to gather for voluntary prayers before or after games. You’ll also remember that in the wake of the Kim Davis controversy, cries arose from every side of the political spectrum that she should have resigned her post as a Clerk of Court in Kentucky if she felt the duties of the job conflicted with her faith. Never mind the fact that Davis is an elected official, who took her oath of office before the Supreme Court issued its ruling that superseded state laws and that legalized same-sex unions across our nation.
Countless other examples of the collision between religion and public life exist, but the crux of the matter is whether religious liberty will remain a foundational tenet of American society. “Americans should be able to disagree over issues without using government to force one another out of jobs or into jail,” said ADF Director of Alliance Relations Alison Howard in a press release on the Barna poll results. “It makes sense that Millennials have greater concerns about the loss of religious freedom, as the erosion of freedom has increased in our lifetime more rapidly than in any generation before us…. As a Millennial myself, these findings reveal hope that the next generation of leaders will understand the need to always respect our basic freedoms and for common-sense accommodations for people of faith when necessary.”
Straddling the Gen-X/Millennial fence, I echo Alison Howard’s hope. Perhaps that sometimes-reckless idealism for which youth are often known can bring our country back from the precipice. It is worth remembering the great Catholic orator of the mid-20th century Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s observation:
“Democracy needs religion more than religion needs democracy. A religion can live without democracy; it can live under tyranny, persecution and dictatorship – not comfortably, it is true, but heroically and divinely. But democracy cannot live without religion, for without religion democracy will degenerate into demagogy by selling itself to the highest bidder.”