The State of Religious Freedom in the U.S.

July 15, 2019
Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom panel
A panel discussion during the first Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom in 2018. Photo: U.S. Department of State

Starting July 16, the U.S. Department of State will host its 3-day Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. The event “brings together leaders from around the world to discuss the challenges facing religious freedom, identify means to address religious persecution and discrimination worldwide, and promote greater respect and preservation of religious liberty for all.” Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, Vice President Michael Pence, and U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi are all expected to speak.

Ahead of this gathering, HDS communications reached out to Diane L. Moore, director of HDS’s Religious Literacy Project and Lecturer in Religion, Conflict, and Peace, to weigh in on the historical context of religious freedom and its current state in the U.S.

HDS: What did religious freedom mean during the founding of the U.S. and how has that meaning changed over time? How is it misunderstood?

DLM: A common narrative about the United States is that it was founded by European colonists fleeing religious persecution in their home countries who came to these shores with a new vision of establishing “religious freedom” for all.

In reality, early migrants were motivated by myriad factors, and the first colonies were established reflecting the dominant Christian religious convictions of their settler inhabitants, displacing the native peoples who lived in these lands for centuries. Over the next several decades, each of the original 13 colonies formed their own intertwined histories that included representations of religious hegemony, persecution, and varieties of inclusion and compromise.

Following independence from Britain, the Constitution was formulated and the religion clauses of the First Amendment were passed in 1791. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;” These clauses were forged, in part, as a compromise protecting the rights of individual colonies to continue to govern their own religious affairs without interference from the newly-formed federal government. This included the right to maintain an official state religion, such as Congregationalism in New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, and Anglicanism in Maryland, New York, and Carolina. It wasn’t until passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868 that the religion clauses of the First Amendment were also applied to the states. Even then, dominant representations of Protestant Christianity persisted well into the twentieth century, and beyond in the form of common practices, such as Bible readings and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in public schools (ruled unconstitutional in the 1960s), the weekly calendar where Sundays still hold special status (government offices are closed and many forms of commerce offer limited hours and services), and in the fact that all of our Presidents and an overwhelming majority of elected officials have been, or are, at least nominally Christian.

This brief overview reveals how from its earliest history, “religious freedom” in the U.S. has been fraught with contradictions that persist today. Chief among them is the way that, for much of U.S. history, “religious freedom” itself has been consciously and unconsciously equated with (and thus restricted to) hegemonic representations of Christianity.

Secondly, this history reveals how religion itself can never be isolated as a discrete entity devoid of political, social, and cultural contexts. In spite of this fact, the assumption that religion is isolable is fundamental to the concept of “religious freedom” and thus allows it to function as what Gerd Bauman describes as a “dominant discourse,” which he characterizes as “conceptually simple, enjoys a communicative monopoly, offers enormous flexibility of application, encompasses great ideological plasticity, and is serviceable for established institutional purposes.” (Gerd Bauman, Contesting Culture, Discourses of Identity in Multi-ethnic London (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 30. Quoted in Hurd, p. 5)

HDS: How would you describe the current state of religious freedom in the U.S.? Is it inclusive or limited to a particular faith group?

DLM: Consistent with the overview outlined above, “religious freedom” in the U.S. functions as a “dominant discourse” that is selectively employed to promote particular aims consistent with prevailing social and political values. The long history of Christian hegemony is reflected in current discourses regarding religious freedom and in the power dynamics within Christian communities that render some interpretations more socially and politically influential than others.

This is overtly represented in the current political prominence of dominant white Evangelical Christians, for example, who successfully lobbied to employ the concept of religious freedom to support the refusal of a corporation (Hobby Lobby) to provide reproductive health care benefits to employees because of claims that doing so violated the owner’s religious convictions (Burwell v Hobby Lobby, 573 U.S., 2014).

In a similar case, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the owner of a bakery who refused to make a wedding cake for a gay male couple because he is religiously opposed to same-sex marriage. (Masterpiece Cakeshop v Colorado Civil Rights Division, 584 U.S. 2018) In both cases, a particular interpretation of religion was privileged over other opposing religious and non-religious views revealing how “religious freedom” is, by definition, selectively enforced.

In a different vein, civil rights advocates had some initial success in the courts and in the arena of public opinion by invoking the concept of religious freedom to challenge President Trump’s January 27, 2017 executive order widely depicted as the “Muslim travel ban” but formally entitled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States.” This order indefinitely suspended the resettlement of Syrian refugees, paused the overall refugee resettlement program, and temporarily barred non-citizens from seven majority-Muslim nations from entering the United States. In the face of court injunctions halting implementation of the order and widespread protests that the ban blatantly discriminated against Muslims, another iteration of the executive order and then a third “proclamation” were released, both incurring court ordered injunctions halting their implementation. In a narrow 5-4 ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court in Trump v. Hawaii, 2018, upheld the proclamation restricting travel to the U.S. by citizens from eight countries citing that the President has “broad discretion” to suspend the entry of non-citizens into the United States.

In responding to the ruling, Americans United for Separation of Church and State compared this decision with that involving the Masterpiece Cakeshop cited above. “Ironically, the court ruled June 4 in the case of a Colorado bakery that wanted to discriminate against LGBTQ people that government entities must take care not to allow even a hint of religious bias to creep into their deliberations. It’s hard to see how the court majority can square that command with a government action that seeks to harm people and deny them rights for no other reason than the religion they adhere to.” (Editorial, Church and State Magazine, July/August 2018.)

HDS: Last month, the State Department released its annual Report on International Religious Freedom, which describes the status of religious freedom in every country. The report called out countries including China and Iran for their mistreatment of religious minorities. During the event for the release of that report, Samuel Brownback, U.S. Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, said: “We believe there is no more important time for the United States to promote religious freedom than now.” What are your thoughts on his statement? Does his statement ring true to you?

DLM: There are several problematic assumptions that inform the work of the Office of International Religious Freedom and Ambassador Brownback’s assertion. The first is the assumption that religious freedom is a concept that can be meaningfully defined in isolation from other social, political, and economic factors that shape the contexts out of which religion is expressed and enacted.

The second is the assumption that as a discrete category, religion functions to both support as well as to thwart free market democracies that are equated with peace and stability.

The third is that the promotion of religious freedom, tolerance, and interfaith understanding will mitigate “extremist” and “violent” forms of religion from flourishing.

Given that religion doesn’t function in a vacuum, the representation that it does actually serves to create and reify an entity vs. describe one, and this creation then has impacts in the contexts in which it is deployed.

For example, as Elizabeth Shakman Hurd outlines in her critically important book, Beyond Religious Freedom, a 2013 report on Syria by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) called for “projects that promote multireligious and multiethnic efforts to encourage religious tolerance and understanding…[and help] religious minorities to organize themselves.” Three of the eight USCIRF commissioners dissented from the report because they believed that it reduced the conflict to simplistic sectarian divisions as opposed to representing the complex array of economic, social, and historic factors that inspired revolt.

Furthermore, this representation reinforced President Assad’s own narrative of sectarian strife that he used to justify autocratic rule. Finally, in addition to lending undue weight to a sectarian reading of the conflict, naming it as such actual created divisions by reifying them and thus, for example, rendering anti-regime Syrian Alawites invisible. (Hurd, 113-114)

In sum, the act of measuring degrees of religious freedom requires constructing clear lines of delineation between religions and between secular and religious actors. Those delineations are then imposed upon communities along with overt and covert incentives to accept the categories outlined which reify isolable categories of “religion” as both a cause of violence and its possible mitigation.

This serves to both mask the complex confluence of social, political, and economic factors that create conditions for stability or unrest in all communities while simultaneously constructing categories of religious difference that can be (and often are) easily exploited by powerful actors in the service of self-interested ends.

The promotion of religious freedom, then, often serves to undermine stability by creating vs. mitigating divisions. Though it is absolutely true that religion is a powerful force in human experience and needs to be included in analyses of factors that contribute to communal well-being, understanding its power requires understanding how it functions within particular contexts as part of a confluence of political, economic, and cultural dynamics versus in isolation from them.

HDS: If you were the U.S. religious freedom ambassador, what would your top priorities be?

DLM: I would advocate for the dismantling of the Office of International Religious Freedom and to redirect funds to rebuild the Office of Religion and Global Affairs that was established under the Obama administration and led by Shaun Casey, MDiv '83, ThD '98, and 2018–19 Religious Literacy and the Professions Fellow. This office promoted a more nuanced and complex understanding of how religions function in global affairs and as such gave diplomats and other professionals better tools to analyze the presence of religious influences in given social and political contexts. This approach better serves the fundamental aims of promoting justice and human rights, including rights associated with religious freedom.

by Michael Naughton