The Enemies of Religious Liberty in America, and How to Refute Them

November 7, 2022 | Peter Berkowitz
About the author: Peter Berkowitz is the Tad and Dianne Taube Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. In 2019 and 2020, he served as Director of Policy Planning at the U.S. State Department. His writings are posted at

To Peter Berkowitz, emergent trends on both the American left and the American right are hostile to the Founders’ version of freedom of religion:

Scorn for religion drives the threat to religious liberty from the left. The progressive threat is less openly articulated but more ensconced in elite institutions. Many on the left regard religion as an oppressive and dehumanizing superstition. Christianity, they believe, suffuses and corrupts the great literary and philosophical works of Western civilization and sustains what they regard as the West’s surpassing sins toward minorities, women, other civilizations, and the environment. The progressive disposition aspires to purge religious expression from the public sphere while using state authority, especially through public education, to emancipate individuals still under religion’s spell.

Religious enthusiasm propels the threat to religious liberty from the right. The conservative threat is primarily the work of elite right-wing intellectuals who have yet to persuade the people or the powerful. While religious liberty’s most ardent defenders in contemporary America tend to be conservatives, members of the new right who are outraged by secularism’s inroads in America want to scale back substantially, if not tear down, the wall of separation between church and state. Some national conservatives rightly argue that Christianity is central to American traditions. Some common-good constitutionalists respectably regard religion as the highest good. Both leap from these reasonable stances to espousing the use of state power to promulgate religion, particularly Christianity.

The threats to religious liberty from left and right betray a common ambition—if inspired by diametrically opposed anxieties and aims—to employ government to regulate faith. Whether intended to circumscribe religion or expand its reach, however, assigning the state responsibility for overseeing the wellbeing of citizens’ souls flies in the face of the principles of individual liberty, human equality, and limited government that are inscribed in America’s founding documents and deeply rooted in the nation’s political traditions.

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