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    September 13, 2017: Religious Polarization in America Today: A Puzzle, a Prescription, and a Prayer




    The Annual Robert J. Giuffra ’82 Conference   May 18, 2018


    “Religious Freedom at Home and Abroad”: John J. DiIulio, Jr.

    Our charge on this panel is “taking the measure of where we are today” with respect to “religious freedom at home and abroad.”

    First, if I may, the bad news—or at least the no-easy-answers news.

    Each year, the U.S. State Department issues an annual report on INTERNATIONAL RELIGIOUS FREEDOM.  The reports document the status of religious freedom in more than 200 nations and territories.  

    One need only to read the last several reports to know that both systemic and episodic violations and abuses of religious freedom, by governments, terrorist organizations, and individuals—many in the name of religion—are sickeningly common on each continent, and in some places religious suppression and persecution is pervasive.

    Fortunately, here in America, we remain blessed with what is by global standards, and by virtually all indices, quite a high degree of religious freedom.  

    Still, we in the United States seem to be in an era of political polarization so perverse and so profound that it has cracked such left-right and bipartisan common ground as we once had regarding religious freedom and a wide range of church-state issues.

    It has been mentioned, but, whatever your perspective on these issues, both a Rabbi David Saperstein and a Senator Sam Brownback should be respected as persons with broad experience, significant knowledge, and deep integrity—agree or disagree, each is a model choice for the public service role that each, despite controversies and extreme criticisms, was nominated and ultimately confirmed to play.  But it is a measure of how troubled our political times have become that the disagreements in both cases involved many people being worse than disagreeable. 

    By the same token, we have reached a point when any consensus on “religious freedom” is a distant civic dream.

    It is true that most Americans still identify as religiously affiliated, and that most still agree that individuals or groups with sincerely held religious beliefs ought to be considered for, if not always or routinely granted, exemptions from legal requirements otherwise binding on all citizens.  

    For example, a 2016 Marist Poll reported that 89% of Americans considered “protecting religious liberty” to be a priority, 65% thought religious freedom should be protected even when it conflicts with government laws.  

    But the religious freedom plot thickens when people are asked about specific religious freedom issues.  

    For instance, a 2016 Pew poll found the public evenly divided regarding whether businesses that provide wedding services should be able to refuse those services to same-sex couples if the owner has religious objections—49% said no, 48% said yes.  

    Similarly, several polls over the years have found majorities in favor of government funding faith-based programs that supply social services—but those majorities implode when the question extends to whether the faith-based programs should be entirely or partially free to use tax dollars to hire only their own co-religionists.

    And the majorities disappear when the question posits any right to discriminate on religious grounds against otherwise qualified beneficiaries.            

    But so, you might ask, what’s new?

    After all, throughout American history, in both courts of public opinion and in courts of law, one set of multiple and competing conceptions and claims about “religious freedom” has been succeeded by another set—and another, and yet another.  

    “Religious freedom” has been variously invoked to rationalize, justify, and legalize everything from private individuals selling, possessing, and using peyote to for-profit corporations refusing to provide health plans featuring a full menu of contraceptives.  

    My favorite single-volume history of church-state relations in America is Philip Hamburger’s 2002 book, SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE.  

    Therein, Hamburger recounts 

    • How a rabidly anti-Roman Catholic conception of religious freedom was championed by a supremely strange-bedfellows coalition of Protestant political liberals and KKK members in the late 19th century and early 20th centuries; 
    • How that coalition’s corrupt concept of religious freedom was aided and abetted in the mid-20th century by a Supreme Court Justice, Hugo L. Black, himself a former KKK member; 
    • And how that Nativist, Know-Nothing notion has remained etched into public laws and state constitutions right down to the present day.

    Still, while “religious freedom” has never meant one thing to one and all, nor good things for one and all, Americans generally conceive of “religious freedom” as involving an individual choosing to be religious or not to be religious, to choose this religion or that one, or to switch religions, all without needing to fear government-authorized interference or…worse.

    This all-American understanding of religious freedom is beautifully illustrated in Barry Fireman’s 2009 book, FROM THE BROKEN WINDOWS.  Therein, Fireman recounts how his elder Jewish family members survived the Russian Revolution, fled the pogroms from 1907 to 1922, and ended up in America—Camden, New Jersey, to be specific.  

    Fireman’s grandfather, Eliahu, was an orthodox Jew.  His father, Eliahu’s adult son, Boroch, was a secular Jew.  From Russia, to escapes from deadly persecutions, to Ellis Island, Eliahu, Boroch, and other family members made their way to Camden.  Fireman writes of their first fully settled day in America:

    They awoke…and they began learning what it was like to live in the United States.  Eliahu could practice his religion without fear, and Boruch was finally free of it.   

    In their book AMERICAN GRACE, a monumental 2010 treatise on how religion both divides and unites contemporary Americans, two superb social scientists, Harvard’s Bob Putnam and University of Notre Dame’s David Campbell, offered an exhaustive, data-rich, survey-soaked profile of Americans’ “high rates of religious belonging, behaving, and believing—what social scientists call the three B’s of religiosity.” 

    Putnam and Campbell also complied fresh empirical evidence regarding both the fluidity of religious identities in America and the growing fraction of Americans who affiliate with no religion.

    The growing “religiously unaffiliated” fraction of the population has been widely referred to as the “Nones”—N-o-n-e-s, not N-u-n-s.  

    In 2007, the Pew Forum Research Center reported survey data indicating that 16% of Americans were “Nones;” by 2014, the fraction of Nones had risen to nearly 23%.  Likewise, between 2012 and 2017, the percentage of Americans who identified themselves as “spiritual but not religious” increased from 19% to 27%.

    I wish we had more N-u-n-s “Nuns” rather than N-o-n-e-s “Nones.”  But whether one likes it or not, the free-flowing de-alignment from religion is itself a robust and positive measure of “religious freedom.” 

    Ditto for what Putnam and Campbell termed the “churn” of contemporary religious identities in America, “a fluid religious environment that enables people seeking something different to leave one religion for another, to find religion for the first time, or to leave religion altogether.”

    Catholic institutions whose members get poached by Evangelical churches, or parents who raise their toddlers as believers only to witness their teenagers defect from the faith or become orthodox secularists, may not like the churn of religious freedom—not any more than Eliahu was happy to witness Boroch stop keeping kosher and stop going to synagogue.

    But religious freedom it is—alive and well.  

    Moreover, most recent surveys—like Pew’s huge January 2017 panel survey—find most Americans expressing increasingly warm feelings toward most religious groups, from Mainline Protestants to Muslims to Mormons. 

    Generally speaking, with respect to support for religious freedom, Americans have been, and continue to be, 

    • More inclined to support individual or personal religious freedom than they are to support institutional or corporate religious freedom; 
    • More inclined to support institutional religious freedom for churches and charities than they are to support it for for-profit firms or federations; and, naturally, 
    • More inclined to favor religious freedom when they do not perceive its exercise to conflict directly with other desirable civic values or to require employment discrimination or other forms of discrimination.

    Although there are no studies to test let alone to prove it, it seems reasonable to posit that public support for both individual and institutional religious freedom varies inversely with negative news about religion and directly with positive news about religion.  

    And, of course, the news regarding religion and any other topic is not all the information that’s fit to print or digitize, but only such as gets reported, tweeted, or virally viewed. 

    Over the last decade or so, much of the news about religion has been—not good.  

    And more than a little of the not-good news about religion has implicated support for religious freedom.  

    I’m thinking here, for example, of the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandals, and the mountainous evidence that in Philadelphia and many other cities religious freedom arguments and exemptions were used, and in some places continue to be used, to cover up heinous crimes, defend predators posing as clerics, and avoid pay-outs to victims.

    All true, all widely reported, and recently dramatized in an Oscar-winning movie about the Boston scandal.

    But what’s also true is that the very same religious institution has used its religious freedoms to effect enormous civic good via its sacred places, pastors, nuns, flocks, and volunteers.  

    For example, a 2017 University of Pennsylvania research center study conservatively measured and monetized the value of the local Philly Catholic Church’s faith-based programs, from millions of free meals to needy children to thousands of hospital beds for the infirm elderly.  The study estimated that the Church’s services, all offered to needy people without regard to their religion or lack of religion, totaled more than $4 billion a year—larger than Philly City Hall’s General Fund budget.  

    But that religious civic “halo effect” story, like most good news about religion and the social, economic, and civic value wrought by religious freedom, gets short shrift in the mainstream media and also, oddly enough, in the religion-focused media outlets.  

    This problem was the topic of a book entitled BLIND SPOT: WHEN JOURNALISTS DON’T GET RELIGION, a 2009 Oxford University Press volume edited by the Hudson Institute’s Paul Marshall and others, and to which I contributed one chapter.  So far as I can tell, nothing has changed since then, though some believe that the media coverage of religion generally and religious freedom specifically is now worse.  Maybe—maybe not. 

    Finally, support for religious freedom around the globe was probed by a big 2015 Pew survey.  The survey asked whether you think it is “very important that people can practice religion freely in your country.”  The global median was 74% agreeing that it is so important; 84% of Americans said so, compared, for example, to 74% in Asia/Pacific and 63% in Europe.  

    On the one hand, long-standing anti-religion freedom laws on the books in many nations still stand and have remained unchanged.  But, on the other hand—and while the plural of anecdote is not data—there are case studies to suggest that, most particularly in parts of Asia, religious freedom may be making incremental advances. 

    So, in conclusion, with respect to support for religious freedom at home and abroad, it is certainly not the best of times, but neither is it plainly or unambiguously the worst of times.