State, national columnists

Role of religion shrinking in modern America

By From page A8 | July 12, 2014

Surveying the response to last month’s Hobby Lobby decision, I was struck by a comment from progressive Massachusetts senator and possible Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren.

Speaking about the ruling, Warren remarked: “I cannot believe that we live in a world where (we) would even consider letting some big corporation deny the women who work for it access to the basic medical treatments or prescriptions that they need based on vague moral objections.”

I won’t address inaccuracies in the first part of her comment.

Frankly, it’s the latter half that really concerns me, precisely for what it reveals about the deep and growing divide between religious and secular America.

The significance of religion in America has evolved throughout our history, but it has always been regarded with a deep respect across the political spectrum. The reaction from the left to the Hobby Lobby decision indicates that is no longer the case.

In brushing off the religious convictions of the Hobby Lobby owners with such unstinting indifference, Warren describes quite succinctly how many on the secular left view religion today.

In a word: insignificant.

To the senator and those of like minds, faith, it would seem, is not fundamental, defining or life-giving, but vague, casual and intermittent; “more like a hobby,” as Bloomberg columnist Megan McArdle describes it.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in her dissent, seemed to agree about religion’s irrelevance in secular democracy, referring to any effect of the administration’s contraceptive coverage requirement on an individual’s free exercise as “incidental.”

For many Americans whose faith informs everything they do and through which they understand their very existence, relegating faith to the marginal role of “activity” or “hobby” isn’t just ignorant, it’s a threat to our democracy.

Anyone who has cracked a textbook on U.S. history is probably aware that our nation owes its beginning to men and women expressly seeking to secure their own religious freedom, often at great risk to themselves.

As such, it was no accident that free exercise of one’s faith (or no faith at all) is the first freedom listed in our nation’s Bill of Rights, preceding freedom of speech, press and assembly.

Freedom of religion was clearly understood by the drafters as fundamental to the success of the experiment in self-government they were about to propose in the Constitution.

Religious practice was also indispensable to the American idea of ordered liberty.

The 19th-century philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville observed that the presence of religion in America made a distinct difference in the nation’s particular version of democracy, “impos(ing) upon each man some obligations toward mankind,” that a society based on a secular understanding of equality could not.

He was right, and this religiously steeped understanding of freedom has motivated some of the greatest liberation movements, from abolition to civil rights, not to mention some of the most robust humanitarian efforts in modern history – all made possible because as a protected freedom, religion in America was allowed to flourish.

Yet, contemporary secular thinkers seem to be quickly forgetting, or wittingly ignoring, religion’s profound influence on American life by insisting that its role in modern society is increasingly marginal. But such insistence does not make it so.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat writes of “a sense – not universal but widespread – that religious pluralism has broad social benefits, and that the wider society has a practical interest, within reason, in allowing religious communities to pursue moral ends as they see fit.”

His point is an important one. Unlike the right to free contraception of one’s choosing or any other modern entitlement, religious freedom benefits everyone equally, sometimes in ways we fail to recognize or acknowledge.

We would all be well served to rediscover its value and return it to a place of significance in American democracy.

Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Readers may send her email at [email protected].

Cynthia M. Allen


Discussion | 17 comments

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  • PornacJuly 12, 2014 - 7:03 am

    Corporations are people. Romney said and it is so.

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  • rlw895July 12, 2014 - 9:30 am

    Freedom of religion is alive and well in America, but if religion clashes with secular law where the impact on free exercise is legally (not necessarily individually) "incidental," secular law should prevail.

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  • CD BrooksJuly 12, 2014 - 9:37 am

    BS. We do not need this type of thinking in America. Religious freedom DOES NOT "benefit everyone equally!" The Supreme Court stepped in it and opened the door. This is dangerous ground, believe it.

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  • DanielJuly 12, 2014 - 10:02 am

    Slavery was legal secular law that conflicted with religion especially Lincoln's religion which was a major influence on every single one of his governmental decisions. If Lincoln belonged to the religions of secularism, atheism or relativism, he possibly would have accepted slavery because in those religious systems each one is based on selfish interests, greed and envy. Among the other religions pure orthodox Christianity is the only one that teaches to put everyone else before yourself and even to live and pray for your enemies, Admittedly those that label themselves as Christians often don't follow what is being taught however if the whole world practiced the principals taught directly by Christ the world would be a utopia compared to the affect of the religions of atheism, secularism and paganism as followed by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pot Pol and American "progressives".

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  • CD BrooksJuly 12, 2014 - 10:08 am

    Right Daniel more BS.

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  • Rick WoodJuly 12, 2014 - 10:13 am

    Lincoln was driven first and foremost by a secular desire to keep the Union together, not to end slavery. That came later. He didn't put his religious beliefs above secular law. He knew slavery could only be ended, under the Constitution, by secular law. And that's how it ended, first with the Emancipation Proclamation in the rebellious territories as a wartime necessity, and finally, for good everywhere in the country, with the 13th Amendment.

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  • DanielJuly 12, 2014 - 10:50 am

    Even though Slavery was secularly "legal Lincoln viewed it as even evil law and reversed that law. The reason he was motivated to reverse it wasn't based on secularism on its own merits, it was because of his convictions and those were all formed and influenced by his religion. Everyone in the world is influenced by a "religion" whether they acknowledge it or not like CD who labels his own personal religion as a non religion even though he has the beliefs, faith and zeal that are characteristic of all other religions.

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  • CD BrooksJuly 12, 2014 - 10:57 am

    Daniel, my "religion" is and always has been my faith in myself and my abilities. The rest is BS you just haven't figured that out yet.

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  • archieJuly 12, 2014 - 1:52 pm


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  • Rick WoodJuly 12, 2014 - 11:01 am

    I don't doubt that Lincoln viewed slavery as evil, but he was also a lawyer and knew it was an legal evil, and he was bound to uphold any law that was constitutional. He never reversed that law, but he overrode it using his war powers during the Civil War when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. He only freed the slaves in the rebellious territories that were at war with the Union. Slaves were still held legally in border states like Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland. It wasn't until the 13th Amendment became law well after Lincoln was gone and the war over that the last slave became free in America. So even in the case of Lincoln and slavery, religious beliefs yielded to secular law.

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  • MarkJuly 12, 2014 - 1:46 pm

    Your title is correct, and thank goodness for that! Young and educated people realize how ALL religions are BS and hopefully in my lifetime religions will be all but obsolete.

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  • CD BrooksJuly 12, 2014 - 4:07 pm

    Mark, a great start would be the immediate elimination of their exemptions. Then they can play politics all they like.

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  • TJ BairdJuly 12, 2014 - 7:12 pm

    Sorry I'm late to this discussion - busy day. CD, I have never weighed in with you, in part because you seem to be far more intelligent than myself. I do have a question. By your estimation would you say that as a whole, is the US the greatest country in the history of mankind?

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  • rlw895July 12, 2014 - 7:45 pm

    I don't know, the Roman Empire was pretty impressive.

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  • TJ BairdJuly 12, 2014 - 8:06 pm

    CD, they were in fact a very impressive society. In your opinion greater than America? You have such definite opinions on most everything, certainly you have a perspective on this. This is not meant to trap you in any way. Just curious. You and I have very different world views, (based on what I have read of your comments) but that doesn't mean I can't learn things for you.

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  • CD BrooksJuly 13, 2014 - 7:27 am

    TJ Baird, good morning. I have read your comments for some time and appreciate your thinking and how you confidently articulate your thoughts. No I'm not an intelligent guy. I do have very passionate opinions about many things and don't mind expressing them. I'm not the greatest rah-rah guy around so not sure I'd go out on that limb saying the "US the greatest country in the history of mankind?" Some of the heinous crimes that were committed in the name of a god or by those allegedly representing a god have certainly stained our history. Then the way we treat minorities and women and those that are “different” surely cannot be described as honorable.

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  • Rick WoodJuly 17, 2014 - 11:23 pm

    I have the same reservations as CD, because I don't think of the U.S. in those terms. We should focus on us being as good as we can be and let future generations decide. I'm also not such a student of history that I could defend a position against someone who is. Nonetheless, in our lifetimes, I would say the U.S. has been the world's greatest nation by many measures that matter to me. I can't think of any nation today that would be greater. Can you?

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