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Liberty and religion are drifting apart

Beto O'Rourke (Getty)

When Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in the 1830s, he was struck by how radically it differed from France. In his home country, the partisans of religion and the partisans of liberty were starkly opposed. Philosophes openly scoffed at the faith; Catholics rejected liberty altogether. In America, by contrast, he discovered the union of “two perfectly distinct elements that elsewhere are often at war”, namely “the spirit of religion and the spirit of liberty”.

I doubt he would say the same thing today. Last week at a CNN forum on LGBT issues, Democratic presidential candidate Robert Francis “Beto” O’Rourke was asked whether he would revoke the tax exemptions of religious institutions that don’t support gay marriage. It is remarkable that CNN would ask this question. It is even more remarkable that O’Rourke unhesitatingly said yes.

“There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break, for anyone or any institution, any organisation in America that denies the full human rights and the full civil rights of every single one of us,” O’Rourke said. “And so, as president, we’re going to make that a priority, and we are going to stop those who are infringing upon the human rights of our fellow Americans.”

O’Rourke’s remark received little opposition from other liberals. Dylan Matthews, a writer for Vox, commented: “We all support some versions of this, we just disagree on where the line is. Beto’s strikes me as a reasonable place to set it.” As Matthews observed, Beto was merely following widely accepted progressive arguments to their logical conclusion: protecting freedom means limiting religion.

Religious views are already being excluded from polite society. At the same forum, Elizabeth Warren was asked what she would say to a supporter who believed that “marriage is between one man and one woman.” She scoffed: “Well, I’m going to assume it’s a guy who said that. And I’m going to say, then just marry one woman… assuming you can find one.”

A corresponding development is occurring on the other side of the aisle. Conservative intellectuals are arguing that liberalism has failed. And the Republican Party has shifted, however haltingly, away from an emphasis on liberty. Donald Trump’s speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention used the word “freedom” only once, and made no mention of liberty. This is a far cry from the rhetoric of Bush and Romney.

Many Americans now see “religious freedom” as an oxymoron. They believe in freedom from religion, not freedom for it. This view is particularly prominent in the academy. Recent years have seen a spate of new books calling into question the very the idea of religious freedom, including The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, Beyond Religious Freedom, The Myth of American Religious Freedom and Why Tolerate Religion?

Doubts about religious freedom reflect a crisis in American society – one that Tocqueville worried might be coming.

He believed that America’s unique culture could be traced back to the Puritans, who had fled Europe in the name of religious freedom, and whose devotion had given them the discipline needed to sustain a free society. Tocqueville suggested that 19th-century American Catholics had inherited this Puritan tradition. They were “simultaneously the most submissive faithful and the most independent citizens”. By presenting American Catholics as at peace with liberty, Tocqueville hoped to encourage the same attitude among his countrymen. But he had private reservations, confided only to friends. To one he wrote: “Catholicism,
I am afraid, will never adopt the new society. It will never forget the position that it had in the old one and every time that [it] is given some powers, it will hasten to abuse them.”

These doubts mattered a great deal, because Tocqueville believed that Catholicism would shape America’s future. He believed that men in democratic society, sick of compromise, would cling to the most consistent form of Christian faith or reject Christianity altogether: “Our descendants will tend more and more to divide into only two parts, some leaving Christianity entirely, others going into the Roman Church.” Those who did not go to Rome would adopt a vision of liberty that scoffed at Christian faith.

America has not yet groaned and found itself Catholic, but in a broad sense Tocqueville was right. The mushy middle of American Christianity is disappearing. Though the “nones” believe in God and often practice ornate forms of spirituality, they are hostile to dogma and discipline. The Protestant denominations have either liberalised entirely or begun to collaborate with Catholics. The result is a nation increasingly divided between Catholic Christianity and outright unbelief.

This great change will bring conflict, but it will also bring clarity.

Matthew Schmitz is senior editor at First Things