The View from the Religious Middle
Outside the University Union Building at the University of North Texas, a small stone marked one of six "free speech areas" on campus. In the early 2000s, when I was a student there, these designated areas were used mostly by Christians to proclaim hellfire and damnation upon "whoremongers, atheists, homosexuals, and church gossips," among many others. As an agnostic at the time, I marveled at how ineffectively they used the precious little real estate they had to talk about their faith.
Though policies have since changed at UNT, more Christians today tend feel like those students did: that our place in the cultural conversation is shrinking, and we need to shout louder to have our voices heard. A report by Lifeway Research found full 70 percent of pastors (and just over half of the general public) believe that religious liberty is declining in America, and 59 percent believe that Christians are losing the culture wars.
Lifeway Research president Ed Stetzer attributes this unease to "shifts in American culture and church practice" as well as a decline in the number of American Protestants. In the 1960s, Christians made up two-thirds of the population, but today, they make up less than half.
Since Lifeway's research only measured perceptions, it doesn't tell us if Christians really are losing their religious liberty and if so, to what extent. But it isn't hard to get a good read of the situation from the headlines: the contraceptive mandate in the Affordable Care Act (being argued in the Supreme Court this week); the veto of controversial SB1062, which would allow Arizona businesses to refuse services to gay weddings; the rights of businesses to terminate individuals based on their views on homosexuality. The right to sexual freedom has consistently trumped the rights of religious groups.
It's the latest incarnation of a very old story. John the Baptist lost his head for challenging Herod's marriage to Herodias, the wife of his brother. Church tradition tells us that the Apostle Peter was crucified for teaching sexual purity to the prefect Agrippa's concubines. The Mayflower launched for the New World because King Henry VIII wanted a divorce.
The Religious Right interprets these dilemmas and judicial decisions as catastrophic losses in the fight for religious liberty, losses that will usher us down a slippery slope to religious persecution. The left celebrates them as victories, advances in the fight for civil rights and social justice reform.
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