Religious liberty intensifying culture wars?

A new study finds that religious freedom is becoming a long-lasting wedge issue in the culture wars between conservative religious believers and secularists, especially as the former become likely to take on the status of a religious minority themselves. In a study published in the journal Religion, State, and Society (50:3), political scientist James Guth analyzed the Democracy Fund’s Voter Survey and the 2016 and 2020 American National Election Studies, focusing on the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, where an evangelical baker refused to sell a cake to a same-sex couple celebrating their marriage. Guth found that high religious commitment, adherence to traditional theology, and related conservative culture war perspectives were correlated with a strong defense of religious liberty more than was membership in an “ethnoreligious” minority group. The religiously unaffiliated, atheists, and agnostics tended to downplay religious liberty issues. As for the question of whether people should be exempt from providing a service for the sake of conscience, white evangelical Protestants were the most affirmative, while atheists, agnostics, and the unaffiliated rejected such “conscience rights.” Guth writes that the stability in these surveys of public attitudes on the wedding cake case and religious liberty contrasts with the more rapid legal changes that have been occurring in society, including same-sex marriage itself. “Indeed, in some respects, public opinion in this case resembles more closely attitudes toward abortion rights, on which the public has been consistently, narrowly, and strongly divided since Roe v. Wade (1973).”

Guth adds that the finding indicating that these issues not only divide the public but split it into antagonistic camps “confirms media accounts suggesting that religious conscience exemptions have aroused strong sentiments on both sides, with few proponents of compromise or moderation, either legal or political.” Since the Biden administration has already surpassed the Trump administration’s lower federal court appointment record, even the Supreme Court appointment of Amy Coney Barrett will not weaken leftist advocates’ resolve that antidiscrimination laws should have priority over any asserted right to religious liberty. Guth concludes that perceptions of the value of religious liberty and support for conscience exemptions are both led by religious factors. “Although historic ‘religious minority’ status still has some influence, concern for religious liberty and backing for ‘conscience rights’ is now strongly tied to traditional religiosity, ‘orthodox’ theology, and related culture war attitudes…If that is the case, concern for religious liberty and support for conscience claims may become increasingly ‘marginal’ as traditional religion gives way to ‘personal choice’ values in a rapidly secularizing United States. If traditional religious minorities lose their concern for religious liberty and the unaffiliated show none, the shrinking population of traditionalists is unlikely to elicit much public support or many concessions from the political system….” Eventually, this can result in an “American-style laicite,” with all religious claims in the public square being censored. “Although the first new ‘losers’ might primarily be Christian traditionalists, triumphant secularists might well target other religious groups in the future, transforming the very meaning of ‘free exercise,’” Guth concludes.

But, at least on the state legislative level, a new study finds that some traditionally “blue” or liberal states have done a better job of protecting religious liberty than conservative, “red” states. The study, Religious Liberty in the States, conducted by the Center for Religion, Culture, and Democracy, is based on a statistical index and catalog of legal safeguards protecting the free exercise of religion, covering 29 items that include religious protections against vaccination requirements, exemptions from participation in same-sex weddings, and health care provisions that allow for provider refusal of abortion, contraception, and sterilization. The website Real Clear Religion (September 16) reports that in ranking the states on such safeguards, the survey did not find a clear partisan divide. There are both red and blue states at the top and bottom of the rankings. Heading the list is red Mississippi followed by blue Illinois. Texas, known as an evangelical stronghold, is in the middle of the rankings. While prominent blue states, such as California and New York, rank at the bottom, other blue states, including Washington, Connecticut, Maryland, and Maine, scored in the top third. Both Mississippi and Illinois were far ahead of third ranking New Mexico because Illinois passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Health Care Right of Conscience Act, which safeguard a wide variety of religious activities and health care facilities and personnel from government burdens. Mississippi’s health care conscience provisions went further, extending conscience protections even in the case of medical emergencies.

(Religion, State, and Society,; Real Clear Religion,