Every time I turn around, a new study pops up suggesting that people in this country are deserting their historic Christian religious affiliations. Here's a recent one if anyone needs one.
The "nones" -- some fraction of whom identify as "spiritual but not religious" -- tend to think Christianity is about guilt, condemnation and hypocrisy. They are not fans of claims that churches are being denied liberty.
Fr. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit and a senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter writes about the concerns of Douglas Laycock, a professor of law and religious studies at the University of Virginia. Laycock thinks that religious leaders who claim "religious liberty" -- though unspecified he clearly is talking about Catholic bishops and the evangelical Christian right -- are effectively delegitimizing and marginalizing themselves and their institutions.
This is more interesting coming from Laycock than it would be from me, because he was one of the drafters of the federal Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, a version of which brought infamy on Indiana last spring amid accusations that it would legalize homophobia.
Laycock grounds his perception of what is happening in this country by looking at the history of established religion in France. In that country, religion was the enemy of the anti-monarchical revolution, of democracy, of liberty and equality. So liberty is identified not with protecting religious expression but with tamping down religious power: France has regulations against wearing Muslim headscarves, against some kinds of evangelism, and has tight controls on religious schools which are funded by the government.
We don't have to look across the ocean to see what can happen when religion becomes identified with repression. The Mexican government is officially secular, despite the religiosity of the country. Does anyone still read Graham Greene's novel The Power and the Glory? It's potent, in a somewhat horrifying way.
In this country, religion has largely lost the power to dictate personal morals. (Yes, abortion access is a partial exception to this generalization; it's not yet clear where the country will come out there.) If anything is going to save "religious liberty" amid the secular tide, it is probably going to be religion's perceived weakness as much as the enumerated guarantee against governmental interference in the Constitution's First Amendment.
Yet societies do need some kind of moral compass. Whatever we use for that function is not going to be traditionally Christian or even religious. Where do we find it?