If the Answer is “More Religious Freedom,” What Is the Question?

This was, I thought, an illuminating column by Frank Bruni.  Bruni uses the regrettable episode of the U.S. Military Academy cadet who was allegedly harassed because of his atheism (discussed here by Mark) as the occasion for offering some larger reflections about the nature of “religious freedom” (his phrase) in America.  Bruni observes that “We Americans” are not “careful” about drawing a “line” between church and state.  After all, “[r]eligious faith shapes policy debates.  It fuels claims of American exceptionalism.”  “We have God on our dollars,” Bruni continues, “God in our pledge of allegiance, God in our Congress,” “God in our public schools,” and, of course, God in our national motto.  “Last year, the House took the time to vote, 396 to 9, in favor of a resolution affirming “In God We Trust” as our national motto. How utterly needless, unless I missed some insurrectionist initiative to have that motto changed to ‘Buck Up, Beelzebub’ or ‘Surrender Dorothy.'”  Add to this that “there’s too little acknowledgment that God isn’t just a potent engine of altruism, mercy and solace, but also, in instances, a divisive, repressive instrument[.]“

Bruni concludes with the view that all of this — this composite of inclusion of religion in public life (more precisely, of God in public life), most of which is, he believes, unhealthy for the country — “doesn’t sound like religious freedom at all.”

That’s the particular point that I find both problematic and illuminating.  The problem is that describing what sits at the root of Bruni’s complaints as an absence of “religious freedom” doesn’t really work.  For one might have thought that permitting people to voice religious reasons for their public policy and political beliefs was part of religious freedom.  One might even believe that retaining God as a part of the public life of the country — manifested in some of the ways that displease Bruni — is also a feature of religious freedom.  Bruni is absolutely right that “We Americans” have not drawn hard lines between religion and government.  That is certainly true historically.  Part of the reason may be that we have not been sufficiently attentive to religious freedom; but another fairly substantial part of the reason not to draw such lines is precisely to protect religious freedom.

So talk of religious freedom and its absence is not really the issue.  What Bruni really means is that (1) he disagrees with the policy positions staked out by those who tend to use religious arguments in public contexts, including in the gay marriage context that he raises, and that (2) he dislikes the invocation of God — whose evil works are, “in instances,”  as copious as His good ones — in public life generally and wishes that it would end.   That’s not an uncommon view.  But it would be more straightforward — and much simpler — if Bruni  just said as much, without the confusing rhetoric about the demands of “religious freedom.”  Even in the separationist era of the mid-20th century, religious freedom, at least as practiced in this country and as constitutionally protected, has not generally been about drawing the kinds of lines that Bruni favors.

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