The vulnerability of religious tolerance and diversity

By Stan Rasmussen

Last Thursday, June 11, Senator Mike Lee delivered a significant and timely address in Washington, D.C. In Conserving Religious Liberty For All he said:

…at this moment in our nation’s history, … cherished American ideals are being questioned, and in some cases threatened, as never before.

Today I would like to discuss the challenges and opportunities presented by the vulnerability of one of those ideals in particular: America’s tradition of religious diversity, tolerance, and freedom.

In many ways, our tradition of religious liberty is the dog that didn’t bark.

Americans take for granted religious toleration and pluralism because – blessedly – we have never known anything else.

For most of human history, prior to America’s Founding, a free conscience was not seen as an essential human good, but as a threat.

America was different, not by accident or whim, but by design. Because America was founded by men and women, families and congregations who turned the oppression of the ages inside out.

Senator Lee continued,

In practice, religious liberty in America has meant that the government’s job is not to tell people what to believe or how to discharge their religious duties, but to protect the space for all people of all faiths – and of no faith at all – to seek religious truth and to order their lives accordingly.

No matter who you are or where you come from … regardless of your race or wealth, your political affiliation or sexual orientation … to be free in America is to know you won’t be forced to compromise your conscience as a price of your citizenship.

Like so much else that made America great and exceptional, religion here breathes in the natural human space between the isolated individual and the overwhelming state.

This space – created by our cooperative culture and protected by our constitutional law – is where Americans have always been free to come together as equals, to live and to love and to pursue our happiness.

Government’s role – as it pertains to religion and most everything else – is not to direct our interactions within this space, so much as it is to ensure all Americans have equal access to it, and equal opportunity within it.

With this as preface, the senator then observed,

The great American commitment to religious liberty and diversity may still be universally successful, but it is no longer universally shared.

This turn toward intolerance, tragically, has been catalyzed by the campaign for legal recognition of gay marriages.

You don’t need to subscribe to any particular faith, or hold any particular beliefs about abortion or marriage, to see the danger of a government forcing innocent people to violate their conscience … when they are just trying to make a living, serve their community, or educate the next generation.

We should never lose sight of the fact that the marriage equality movement is succeeding not by focusing on marriage, but by focusing on equality.

Underscoring a key point of his presentation, Senator Lee then noted,

Soon, it seems likely that America’s public square will fully welcome married, same-sex couples – not as victims or revolutionaries, but simply as equals.

Just as America has mostly avoided traditional conflicts between Protestants and Catholics, Christians and Jews, Sunni and Shia, atheists and believers – so too Americans’ commitment to tolerance, diversity, and dignity is perfectly capable of making room for the rights and dignity of those who disagree about the meaning of marriage.

But good-faith compromise – of the sort that is America’s unique political genius – is possible only if the government gives us the space to find it.

If we want to reinforce religious liberty in America, our first step must be to protect that crucial “space of freedom” from undue government interference.

In Sutherland’s view, it is essential in the securing of that “space of freedom” from the intrusions of government, that we accord and defend for each other both dignity and the right to disagree.

We encourage you to read the entire transcript of Conserving Religious Liberty For All, by Senator Lee.

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