I just spent a goodly portion of this morning mulling over and then writing the editorial for this issue. The unfortunate part of the story is that it was not this editorial. It was another version. One begun in a flurry of brain activity and pattered down on the keyboard as I proceeded. In fact, I was on the last paragraph when it happened. The words had spilled over to another page, which began with half of the last sentence I had written. I looked at those words, wondered for a second how the sentence had begun, and scrolled up to see. Nothing! The entire file had vanished. I called the in-house computer specialist, who gave it to me officially: I had lost it forever—and why had I not backed it up?
It strikes me that our religious liberty scene is proving very much like my editorial: lots of activity, many fine words written, and many great things done to protect our freedoms. And then we wake up one day to find them gone or going, and the world has shifted on its axis.
Before the great vanishing I had begun by riffing on about science. Science has neatly usurped religion for much of what passes for public consciousness. For much of history science was a matter for scientists and men of learning to mutter about in the cloisters of learning. It took a Darwin and an Einstein to bring us to our present Western secular turn of mind. We are in a new paradigm where we worship science and human progress even as we cling to cherished notions of the value of faith and religious freedom. We have created an unbearable tension for ourselves.
The contradictions are nowhere more visible than in educational institutions. Even in church-run systems, which are not so constrained by questions of a separation of church and state! I have heard recently of problems, in some church schools, of teachers aggressively teaching evolution in the science class, even as others in the religion classes teach creation and religious absolutes. The result has been an intolerable conflict that pits parents against faculty and faculty against constituency. The problem was a long time in coming, but no one much cared until "suddenly" it presented as a restriction on both academic freedom and the faith values young people/parents expected to find in a religious institution.
This apparent sudden shift of events is nowhere more evident than in the market meltdowns that have followed the great deficit debate of 2011. I came to the United States as a young (very young) teenager in the 1960s. It was obvious, even then, to anyone who cared to read the relevant, dull documents that the United States was spending way beyond its income. A few years later I read that all personal income tax receipts went to paying only the interest on the debt. But politicians still insisted that deficits didn't matter. It didn't seem to matter that putting a man on the moon and sentries at hundreds of outposts around the world came at a dollar cost expressed in "new math" hyperbole. Now we are suddenly less than AAA rated, all entitlements are under a shadow, and we use Greece and Italy as comparisons for potential meltdown. It didn't just happen. We just suddenly noticed it.
The Middle East has long been a land of dictatorships and enlightened despots (the difference being mostly in whether they are friend or foe). For my lifetime at least it has been a bubbling pot of discontent, seasoned liberally by the hurts left by colonial powers and the at-times fantastic aims of religion. Too bad that we in the West were so content to add little more than weaponry and take away little more than once-cheap oil. Now the Arab Spring has suddenly sprung, and we hope for great things. We fed this plant the wrong stuff, so we shouldn't be surprised that it grows a little out of control. There may not be as much difference as we think between a polyglot crowd of nationalists, libertarians, and Islamists and the regime that uses tanks to suppress them. And it may be worthwhile to take note of the fact that all parties are picking on religious minorities. A problem long ignored is now roaring out of control.
Religious liberty seems a safe freedom in the United States—at present. What if suddenly we found ourselves in a situation like medieval Europe, or the Latin America of the 1960s—state favoritism of religious orthodoxy and harassment of independents? It might happen, and it would not be all that sudden—just suddenly revealed. By my judgment things are actually quite tenuous here. For years there have been increasing attacks on the separation of church and state. Many mainline, politically active church organizations are openly dismissive of separationism as not in the Constitution. They seem to forget the old adage that goes something like "saying it's so don't make it so." They are anxious for state funding, state support of their dogma, and advancement of a civil society that matches their vision of orthodoxy.
The net effect of this decades-long effort is that we could be on the edge of a First Amendment collapse. It does not yet appear so, because the main effect is diminishing the establishment clause. On the march to victory over that clause its soldiers are happy to defend free exercise—free exercise for all by default. But once the first battle is over, we will probably see a quick alliance with secularists to direct religious practice to a particular religious viewpoint.
There is a dynamic in place at the moment that I must mention and that we discount at our peril. The West is reeling from a series of crises.
The war on terror has tended to diminish the application of absolute civil liberty. It has tended to desensitize populations to the mistreatment of minorities—especially those perceived as either causing the problem or not sufficiently loyal to our values.
Economic collapse always empowers prejudice against those of different ethnicity, religion, or politics than the majority. Here in the United States religion and politics are both at a toxic level: exhibit A might be the furor at the New York Ground Zero mosque and subsequent Koran burning; exhibit B is heard on the daily radio programs that cast the opposition as unpatriotic and socialist/class haters or any number of other right-left epithets. I hope my neighborhood remains calm as the economy falters (at the moment the calm is in the manner of shuttered, foreclosed homes), but it is certain the religious tensions will be exacerbated, certain that religious expression will become itself a lightning rod for political discontent. We must be prepared and not surprised by such sudden changes—they have actually been a long time coming.
Author: Lincoln E. Steed
Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."