If you listen to Fox News, right-wing radio or any of the mouth-breathing websites catering to the political right these days, you will receive a powerful message about the state of freedom in contemporary America. Seemingly everywhere, say right-wingers, liberty — but especially religious liberty — is being trampled upon by an authoritarian federal government set to impose a secular-humanist “agenda.”
Aside from why secular humanism should be such an awful thing, the various pundits on the right point to two examples which they say is prima facie evidence of the death of religious freedom in Obama’s America. The first, of course, is the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act that the Obama administration shepherded through Congress in 2010. The act, passed over the wailing cries of the right-wing faithful, requires that all employers except churches and other places of worship provide contraceptive coverage for female employees — a practice comparable to the godless communism of the Mao or Stalin variety.
As you might recall, the contraceptive mandate was immediately opposed by nearly everyone who might once have had the need to kowtow in front of a cross. This included all the Republicans running for the White House in 2012, those morally upright fellows who actively covered up decades of child abuse known as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and white evangelical Protestants, such as those running the Hobby Lobby Stores corporation — people whose official faith does not actually condemn birth control and a company that had, in fact, covered emergency contraception for its female employees before filing suit against the contraceptive mandate in 2012. Thankfully for god-fearing Americans, the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive mandate is currently before the Roberts Court and could be struck down as soon as sometime this month.
The second instance of government tyranny that is proof of the federal government communing with dark powers involves long-standing public accommodation laws dating back to Civil Rights era legislation that basically say that if someone serves the public via a business, he or she cannot discriminate against serving potential customers on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, country of origin, or just about anything else. The right, of course, says this is government tyranny at its worst because it dictates to businesses who they can and cannot serve. Everyone else, as we shall see, takes it for granted that after decades of hard-won social progress, it is wrong for someone seated at a public lunch counter to be denied service because the business owner is an ignorant bigot.
The latest problem with public accommodation laws on the right is that now it turns out that anti-gay, right-wing bigots who want to deny service to gay and lesbian customers based on their religious beliefs can’t, in fact, do that. The case in question involved a baker who refused service to a gay couple in Colorado who wished to celebrate their nuptials with a wedding cake purchased from the baker’s shop. When he refused, the couple sued. The couple won their case when it was revealed that even though the baker hated gays due to his religious faith, the baker had previously agreed to make a cake for the wedding of two dogs, thus rendering his “faith” position on marriage both ridiculous and moot.
The ruling in Colorado, like the new health care law’s contraceptive mandate, set off a firestorm of protest by America’s allegedly Christian faithful that the armies of Gog and Magog were upon them. Far-right legislators in places like Arizona and Mississippi sought to fight back against the devil-worshipping hordes by enacting legislation and constitutional amendments protecting the right to discriminate against individuals based on the rights of religious belief. Though these measures have largely been defeated due to local industries’ fears of losing the gay dollar, they nonetheless represent a strain in American life that sees religious belief — really, a far-right version of Christianity — as what the Constitution really enshrines and protects.
Lost amidst all this conflict is what Americans as a whole truly believe when it comes to religious freedom and the ability to practice it at the expense of the rights of others. Unfortunately for the American right and the religious conservatives who pretend to speak for their respective flocks, it turns out that the America they inhabit and the America most other people believe in are very different places when it comes to religious tolerance, public accommodation and fear of loss of religious liberty. A new poll on this very issue released recently by the good people at the Public Religion Research Institute proves this.
According to the results of the poll, six in 10 Americans say they believe that publicly-held corporations and privately-owned corporations should be required to provide their employees with health insurance that includes contraception at no cost. What’s more, the majority of Americans even say religiously-affiliated hospitals and religiously-affiliated colleges should be required to provide insurance that covers contraception for their employees. Contraceptive coverage, therefore, is not seen as the end of the Republic by most people.
These pro-secular numbers skyrocket, however, when respondents described the degree to which businesses, even small businesses, should be allowed to refuse service based on religious belief. Here, fewer than one in five Americans — less than 20 percent of the population — say companies should be allowed to discriminate or refuse service on religious grounds if the person being refused service is gay or lesbian, atheist, Jewish or black. Contemporary America, it would seem, categorically rejects the rights of private firms to discriminate against others on religious grounds.
Finally, one item contradicting the secular tendencies of the American population is the belief of 54 percent of those polled that religious liberty is, in fact, being threatened, though the results are not exactly what the religious right might wish to be reported. That’s because while a clear majority of older, politically conservative, evangelical Protestants and Catholics say they believe religious liberty is being threatened, equally large majorities of younger people explicitly believe that religious liberty is actually not being threatened. That bodes ill for the religious right moving forward and is great news for secular Americans.
That’s because if one takes into account the beliefs of young people from other reported survey research results that indicate those aged 18 to 29 are increasingly abandoning religious faith for atheism, agnosticism and “none of the above” religious affiliation, then what this most recent poll reveals on the religious liberty question is a snapshot of a society in transition. Though long thought immune to the secularization process long seen in Western Europe, America is merely following along at a slower pace due to our different set of historical circumstances in which the benefits of belief and faith were long seen to outweigh its costs. With a third of young people now openly saying they are unaffiliated with any religious belief, and with even deeply conservative sects now unable to retain their own young, America’s religious future is increasingly being painted via demographic destiny.
That future is thus one that is very different than what America has experienced for most of its modern history, when public affirmation of faith was seen as core to both American identity and as what separated us from our Cold War enemies. Now, however, with America’s enemies abroad seeming to be more and more like our own homegrown religious fanatics, and with young people now more informed and better educated than ever before, it would seem that faith’s fact-free, dogmatic hold on the American psyche is beginning to break. Just in time, too.
Not that faith or religion are necessarily bad, of course, but because for too long appeals to both have been commonly used by American reactionaries to divide and conquer a gullible public too eager to buy into the grotesque flimflam religious conservative con artists constantly try to sell them. A less believing, more rational public is going to be a more skeptical and cynical public in general, and in the Information Age it will necessarily require much more in the way of reason, logic and evidence to win them over. For an America taken in by such obvious lies as supply-side economics, Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, the evils of marijuana and climate-change denial, this coming age of skepticism can’t be anything but good.