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Religious Freedom Alive and Well in the U.S.?

February 7, 2013

What is going on with freedom of religion in the United States?

Is there any substantial change in it in the last year or two? If you listen to some people, including some religious leaders, you’d think the government is out to restrict at least certain aspects of religious freedom.  (Note the charges about the Affordable Care Act [“Obamacare”] and insurance coverage for contraception.)

However, there is a more systematic and seemingly objective source that has released some data which might seem to support such claims: The Pew Research Center and its Forum on Religion and Public Life.  A few months ago, they released a report entitled “The Rising Tide of Restrictions on Religion”.  Low and behold, one of the countries included in this “tide” is the United States.  

One should note that due to the nature of the research, it lags behind real time by a couple years.  So the year of increases on restrictions is mid-2009 to mid-2010. There were 15 other countries in which a similar rise took place in religious restrictions, so there may well be world-wide trends involved here, possibly in parallel with U.S. changes or possibly with a causal influence.

I say that possibly events outside the U.S. are affecting our ratings in that the report involves both governmental restrictions on religion (involving local zoning permits for places of worship, which is often a complex issue, etc.) and social hostilities.  In the social category, the report notes that “[a] key factor behind the increase in the U.S. score on the Social Hostilities Index was a spike in religion-related terrorist attacks in the United States in the year ending in mid-2010.” Not all of these were clearly from outside the U.S., but they were apparently at least partially religiously motivated, and that by influence from outside this country.  I won’t go into the specifics of this or the other factors that triggered a higher restrictive rating (some may well be “one off” issues or rare ones not likely to repeat).  The report can be found here.

A Christian Double Standard?

Map of the world, showing percentage by countr...

Map of the world, showing percentage by country who believe religion is important (2002). Data by the Pew Research Center. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I will, however, point out one case cited in the report which is disturbing for its apparent double standard: A group of citizens in Tennessee sought to prevent the construction of a mosque on the grounds that Islam is a “political ideology rather than a religion” and that “mosques are political rather than religious in nature”.  The mosque was built but the group is reportedly still challenging it in federal court.  I say “apparent” double standard in that I am all but certain the the same people expect to have freedom to build a Christian church without opposition based on a claim that it is political in nature rather than religious.  (I could easily make a snarky  remark here but will restrain myself.)

There does seem to be a world-wide trend in a disturbing direction, as this quote from the report would indicate (at least for 2009-2010): “… three-quarters of the world’s approximately 7 billion people live in countries with high government restrictions on religion or high social hostilities involving religion, up from 70% a year earlier.”  With the “Arab Spring” and reactions to it since then, the uprising and brutal control, at least until just recently, by Islamist’s in Mali, other religion-based attacks further south in Africa, etc., it seems we have not yet seen much if any reversal of the situation.

What are we to make of this? Are religious people (including their leaders) retrenching such that they are more rather than less tolerant of differing beliefs?

The trend of Christianity, apparent to most, has long been toward tolerating and, for many Christians, even respecting other religions.  While I’ve not studied Muslim history much, I believe there has been a similar trend in Islam, and I know that Muslims in many areas of the world have long lived peaceably and lovingly alongside Christians, Jews and others.

I do suspect that we are seeing two separate trends which may temporarily be diverging more than coming together: Greater acceptance of religious differences by the better educated and moderate people and less acceptance of the same by the “true believers”.  They, by circumstances and/or by choice, are largely walled off from positive connection or interaction with those who disagree with them, even other members of their own religion.

Often, even today in many “underdeveloped” parts of the world, this is geographical and practical isolation.  In the U.S. and other areas it is often more a psychological and worldview isolation — the true believer can rub shoulders with non-believers but will not become psychologically open to them or to information from other “secular” sources.  In such a case, which pertains to many Christians in America, when a perceived threat is too close to home (such as a mosque in the neighborhood), it may be actively opposed.

How much of the “social hostility” rise may be explained this way, do you think? How much in other ways? 

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