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Are religious freedom claims all about politics? It’s not that simple

Written by William C. Duncan

October 28, 2022

Though religious groups and people of faith have welcomed recent U.S. Supreme Court religious freedom decisions, some observers have characterized them as part of a political “rightward” move by the court. Others see religious freedom claims as essentially political.

A recent article in The Atlantic relayed an anecdote about churches in a Michigan town, one of which has begun to include directly political messages in sermons and appears to be growing in size, in contrast to a church that has avoided political issues and is dwindling in membership.

A study from a researcher at Monmouth College even presented evidence that “Americans are allowing their politics to shape their religion.” Specifically, the study found “that 25% of respondents had left or considered leaving a church because of political reasons. The number who ‘disaffiliated’ was higher among Democrats.”

These analyses and the narrative they suggest may be overlooking some important details that would add considerable nuance to the picture.

For instance, religious teachings have implications for policy issues without being partisan or political. An important historical example is “the rise of a fervent religious reawakening just as the new Republic was being created” that was “the germ of inspiration” for “the cause of immediate emancipation” of slaves.

Religious faith motivated many activists in their support of women’s suffrage. The opposition to eugenics was consistently motivated by religious belief. Clergy provided important leadership for the civil rights movement, and explicitly religious and scriptural language was a central feature of its rhetoric.

People of faith might say it is more accurate to say that politics has increasingly become involved in areas of traditionally religious teaching like sexual morality or abortion. Some people of faith may change religious affiliation to a congregation more amenable to their political opinions; others may leave their congregation because its longstanding teachings are not amenable to their political commitments.

But respect for our fellow citizens includes being open to the reality that what we see as a politically motivated use of religion may actually reflect sincere faith.

Next, the current discussion tends to focus on a perceived overlap between religious faith and political conservatism. That is a drastic oversimplification. Churches teach principles that are consistent with a variety of political beliefs – a church may simultaneously encourage members to care for the physical environment, protect unborn children, and welcome immigrants.

In fact, there is evidence that religious faith is an important factor in attitudes and practices that are embraced by people of many political views. For instance, a European study found that “belief in God, no matter whether it is a personal God or a Spirit/Life Force is significantly negatively correlated with racism.”

As noted in a previous post:

Religious nonprofits, churches and people of faith operate schools that educate thousands of students. They sponsor programs and services for those out of work. They provide mental health programs, provide relief to individuals with HIV/AIDS, and provide a variety of social services for children. Beyond all this, they encourage charitable giving by adherents, making up an enormous segment of private giving.

Both political and religious freedom require a commitment to allowing others to hold and act on their beliefs, with some rare exceptions, even when we do not understand or appreciate them. If we are convinced that someone’s religious beliefs are mistaken, we are free to share our own.

Stigmatizing or even directly regulating beliefs and practices with which we disagree – even if we think those beliefs are not held in good faith – will actually limit the freedom of all.

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