III. Why are Progressives Attacking Religious Liberty?
The United States has enjoyed religious liberty for so long that many take religious tolerance for granted and expect it from others. Religious tolerance is embedded in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights in the Free Exercise Clause, the Establishment Clause, and the No Test Act Clause. It is also embedded in federal law in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993. Nevertheless, the “Progressive” movement (40) that dominates our universities, our media, and many in the Democratic Party(41) rejects religious tolerance. As explained below, religious liberty cases are now the front line in a conflict between incompatible conceptions of God, man, and government.
Progressives have enjoyed significant success in eroding the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights to establish the modern administrative state. Religious liberty, however, exempts individuals from the laws that Progressives pass in order to transform American government and culture. Religious liberty therefore presents the most tenacious obstacle to the Progressive agenda, and Progressives are waging a war to remove it.
Progressives reject America’s founding principles. The Founders and Progressives are irreconcilably opposed on seven views regarding God, man, and government.(42) Understanding these differences is essential to understanding the war on religious liberty.
First, regarding natural rights and freedom, the Founders believed that all men are created equal and possess inalienable rights. Freedom is a gift of God. Progressives reject these claims. Human beings are not born free, and freedom is the gift of the state.
Second, regarding the formation of society, the Founders held that men form society by consensual social contract. The only legitimate source of political power is the consent of the governed. Progressives, however, reject consent and the social contract as the basis of society. The origin of society is not important, so long as government has all the power needed to remake man in a way that fulfills human potential.
Third, regarding the purpose of government, the Founders believed the purpose of government was to protect God’s gift of freedom. Progressives, however, redefine freedom as the fulfillment of human capacities. The purpose of government is to fulfill human capacities by solving every economic, social, and political problem.
Fourth, regarding who should rule, the Founders thought that the laws should be made by a body of elected officials with roots in local communities. Progressives, however, want power placed in the hands of a strong central government, operating through administrative agencies, and run by trained experts.
Fifth, regarding limits on government, the Founders saw government as bound up with all the strengths and weaknesses of human nature. Men are not angels, and men are not governed by angels. Government power must therefore be restricted to prevent tyranny.(43) Government should focus on securing the persons and properties of its people.
Progressives, however, view the state as almost divine. Government must have the power to accomplish two tasks. First, government must protect the poor and other victims of capitalism through the redistribution of wealth, antitrust laws, and government control over the details of commerce and production. Second, government must become involved in the “spiritual” development of its citizens. This is not done through promotion of religion, but rather by protecting the environment, by promoting personal creativity through education, and by providing spiritual uplift through subsidy and promotion of the arts and culture.
Sixth, regarding God and religion, the Founders saw religious liberty as an inalienable right. Every man is free to follow the dictates of his own conscience. Progressives, however, redefine God as human freedom achieved through the right political organization, or else they simply reject God as a myth.
Seventh, regarding religious tolerance, the Founders considered religious liberty to be an inalienable right. Every man should be free to follow the religious dictates of his own conscience. The Founders therefore ensured religious tolerance through the Free Exercise Clause, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and the No Religious Test Clause.
Progressives, however, hold that neither religious belief nor the free exercise of religion deserve tolerance. Progressives find their philosophical justification for religious intolerance in “naturalism,” a philosophy that claims that there is no reality beyond the physical world. Naturalism developed in the first half of the twentieth century with American philosophers such as John Dewey (1859-1952), Roy Wood Sellers (1880-1973), Ernest Nagel (1901-1985), and Sidney Hook (1902-1989). These philosophers sought to ally philosophy more closely with the natural sciences.(44)
Naturalism equates reality with the natural order. Nothing exists except those things that are accessible through our five senses, and nothing is knowable except through the methodology of the natural sciences. Naturalism justifies these claims by the success of science in explaining the world. For naturalists, the self-evident superiority of science makes religious belief unnecessary, undesirable, and unworthy of constitutional protection.
Naturalism applies the methodology of the natural sciences to all types of human knowledge and belief, including religious belief. In the words of philosopher Sidney Hook, the scientific method “is the only reliable way of reaching truths about the world of nature, society, and man.” Naturalism tests the truth of religious beliefs by examining and evaluating the evidence for religious belief “by the same general canons which have led to the great triumphs of knowledge in the past.” The naturalist “must follow the preponderance of scientific evidence,” and can accept no other evidence for religious belief.(45)
Naturalism claims that if God and moral values exist at all, they must exist solely within the natural world. Science alone is competent to analyze and describe religious beliefs.(46) Since the methodology of the natural sciences cannot prove that God exists, naturalists claim they have disproved God’s existence. According to Sidney Hook, naturalists must deny the existence of God “for the same generic reasons that they deny the existence of fairies, elves, and leprechauns.”(47)
Naturalism motivates many philosophical projects, and “naturalization” programs abound in the theory of knowledge, in ethics, and most importantly, in the philosophy of law. One leading legal naturalist is Brian Leiter, a philosopher and law professor at the University of Chicago. Leiter’s goal in his book Naturalizing Jurisprudence (2007) is to explain “where we can locate law and morality within a naturalistic picture of the world.” (48)
Leiter turned his attention to religious belief in a book entitled Why Tolerate Religion? (2013).(49) Leiter’s views on religion illustrate the views of many in the Progressive movement. Leiter states in the preface that he was motivated to write the book after teaching at the University of Texas from 2001 to 2008, where he witnessed “the pernicious influence of reactionary Christians on both politics and education in the state.”(50)
Leiter argues that there is no moral justification for giving constitutional protection to religious liberty. Leiter makes his argument in two steps. First, Leiter defines religion as “beliefs unhinged from reasons and evidence,”(51) and “categorical demands that are insulated from evidence.”(52) Religion is characterized by insulation “from ordinary standards of reasons and evidence in common sense and the sciences.” Religion, therefore, is a “culpable form of unwarranted belief” unworthy of toleration or special protection.(53)
Second, Leiter examines well-known justifications for toleration provided by the philosophers John Rawls (1921-2002), John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), and Frederick Schauer (born 1946). Leiter concludes that nothing in their justifications warrants tolerating religion. “There is no apparent moral reason why states should carve out special protections that encourage individuals to structure their lives around categorical demands that are insulated from the standards of evidence and reasoning we everywhere else expect to constitute constraints on judgment and action.”(54)
Leiter thus states three reasons for denying constitutional protection to religious liberty. First, religion consists of “beliefs unhinged from reasons and evidence.”(55) Religion is a “culpable form of unwarranted belief” characterized by insulation “from ordinary standards of reasons and evidence in common sense and the sciences.”(56) Second, moral beliefs based in religion make “categorical [mandatory] demands that are insulated from evidence.”(57) Third, religious people, particularly “reactionary Christians,” exert a “pernicious influence on both politics and education.”(58)