Religious Liberty Doesn’t Have to Make Polarization Worse

If it’s done right, it can actually make it easier for us to live together.

Americans support religious liberty—in general. But they are deeply polarized about how far the natural and constitutional right of individuals to respond to their conceptions of the divine should extend. And unfortunately, Americans tend to be reluctant to extend religious liberty broadly to views they find unsympathetic.

I think that’s sad. Religious liberty is for everyone and should be cherished by all. It’s also ironic, as I argue in my new book, Religious Liberty in a Polarized Age, because historically, the central social purpose of religious liberty was to reduce the fear and anger people feel when they’re threatened with penalties for living according to their religious commitments.

Fear and anger produced cycles of violent retaliation in 16th and 17th century Europe among Protestants and between Catholics and Protestants. In response, Americans embraced principles of religious liberty. The founding father James Madison called it the “true remedy” for the “disease” of religious conflicts and their threat to “the health and prosperity” of the nation.

Today’s conflicts between progressives and conservatives are, thankfully, less violent. Yet we also see cycles of coercion, fear, resentment, and retaliation. We also live in an age when people’s response to “ultimate concerns” vary greatly and are often understood in opposition to each other. Progressives sometimes seek to compel conservative religious people or groups to support same-sex marriages or transgender procedures, in violation of their consciences. Conservative Christians sometimes seek to secure privileges for Christianity, forcing acknowledgements from those who aren’t …

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