The Challenges to Religious Freedom from the Left and from the Right

April 4, 2018 | Daniel Mark
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Addressing current threats to freedom of religion in the U.S., Daniel Mark points to troubling intellectual trends on both ends of the political spectrum. From the left, he sees an emerging worldview that seeks to single out long-held religious belief and practices—especially about marriage and sexuality—as forms of “discrimination”:

Underlying the identity politics of sex and the current attacks on religious freedom as discrimination is a postmodern—or rather hypermodern—denial of human nature that amounts to a rejection of all reason and all authority. This movement, in essence, rejects anything that stands in the way of the radical personal autonomy to choose, unrestrained, not only what we do but even what we are.

One central consequence of this denial of human nature is that it leads ineluctably to a denial of human rights. Without a firm view of human nature, we cannot construct a coherent account of human rights. I am aware, of course, that the people I have in mind here claim all sorts of things in the name of human rights. But the new menu of human rights is selective, subjective, and, finally, indefensible. . . . Having abandoned the proper grounds for human rights in order to make room for their ever-expanding list of demands, they have left the concept of rights stretched so thin that the very idea is endangered.

Looking to the right, and the Christian right in particular, Mark fears those who find the roots of left-wing excesses in the same classical liberal tradition that gave the world religious toleration in the first place:

[It’s necessary to] ask what [these] critics of classical liberalism envision: is their goal to build a newer, better, likely smaller Christendom, or is [it] to create just enough space to rebuild a Christian culture within a classical liberal order? Do they wish to reground individual rights on a true and sound basis, or do they want to instrumentalize, minimize, and relativize individual rights, which they see as inimical to the common good in the long run? Do they believe in political, economic, and religious liberty not just in prudence but in principle? Do they believe it was wrong for the pope to kidnap Edgardo Mortara or just poor judgment about the consequences? In the end, do they see classical liberalism and Christianity as compatible or incompatible? . . .

The critics may say that I am naïve about classical liberalism, but, if so, my naïveté only goes so far. I am not here to contend that religious freedom and individual rights are enough on their own. . . . I recognize that liberty alone is insufficient. Virtue, which requires religion, is also necessary. . . .

But the critics contend that classical liberalism itself necessarily, inevitably undermines the very conditions that make its own existence possible. . . . If they’re right, then it is futile to try to foster a Christian culture within a classically liberal order for the long term. This is why we hear more and more talk today about integralism, about un-separating church and state, about Christian monarchists. At risk of oversimplifying, I will say that those conversations don’t sound as if they’re about restoring a Christian culture but about restoring Christendom.

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