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?
Enacting legislative and judicial protections for religion would not generate respect for religion. To think that it would transposes cause and effect. Religion must be intrinsically valued before religious freedom protections would have any meaningful effect. The Bible and prayer were thrown out of public schools, not because a majority of the Supreme Court woke up and decided that those things were no longer deserving of society’s protection, but because the value society placed in them had been eroding for decades. The Supreme Court’s decision reflected this change in societal values. This makes sense in light of the Supreme Court’s decision to retain “In God We Trust” as our nation’s motto. The court found those words constitutionally acceptable because they no longer had substantial religious significance. That is, the court did not protect the motto for what it literally meant; it protected it because it literally had no religious value to society.
While the protection for religion was being cast aside, other protections were taking its place, notably the protection of self-autonomy. We now legally protect terminating childhood for the sake of protecting self-autonomy and choice, even if that entails fabricating constitutional interpretations to achieve that end. Remember, in America we go to great lengths to protect the things we value; we now sacrifice life to protect choice.
Indeed, religious freedom exists only as long we value religion. Why would society protect and fight for something deemed to have little or no value? After all, fighting takes effort, resolve, and sacrifice—things reserved for causes worthy of that sort of effort.
The cliché is right. Religious freedom is not free, and its continued existence is not guaranteed. If we don’t value religion now, one wonders how we win the argument for religious freedom in the future.
Editors' note: This column received first place in the 2010 Alliance Defense Fund “Blackstone Op-ed Quest.” The opinions expressed here belong solely to the author.