There is an oft-repeated American cliché that freedom is not free. Below the surface of this cliché lies three implications: first, that we value freedom; second, that we are willing to pay the price demanded for the protection of freedom; and third, and most pertinent to this discussion, that we protect, with the force of law, the things we value.
While intuitive, the third implication gives us a glimpse of a startling future when applied to religious freedom. If it’s true that we protect the things we value, and that we won’t protect things we don’t value, won’t religious freedom, the protection of religion, exist only so long as we value religion?
In other words, when society stops valuing religion, what motivation is there for society to protect religious freedom?
In the beginning, America protected religious freedom more robustly than any other country in history because of the value its founders placed on religion. Religiously oppressive European governments forced immigrants to the New World. Religion that was not valued in the Old World found a new home in the New World. And when the New World became a new country, its founders expressed their commitment to the value of religion by protecting it in America’s first constitutional amendment.
But the New World is changing. In the same way that children grow into the likeness of their parents, the New World is quickly becoming the Old World.
The American society decreasingly values religion, seriously jeopardizing the future of religious of freedom. A society that does not value religion will not protect religious freedom. The attitude of the next generation towards religion is nothing short of frightening: religious irreverence is commonplace and nothing is held to be sacred. If the value that society allocates to religion could be measured on a sort of generational continuum, it would likely show the immediate past and current generation as apathetic towards religion; they are areligious. Not so for the rising generation where animosity is displacing apathy. It’s antireligious. The tone of the new intellectual religious critics, traditionally civil, has shifted to downright animosity, disrespect, and condescension. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and their associates daily derogate and assail the very existence of religion.
Thus, we face a difficult question: in the future how will we succeed in arguing for the protection of religious freedoms in a society that places no value in religion?