The effect of a polarized society on the quality of the discourse

  • Dudley Rose Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge MA, USA, 45 Francis Avenue, MA 02138.
Keywords: affordable care act, Christians, constitution, elites, Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, first Amendment, Harvard Divinity School, Hobby Lobby, human rights, intactivist, Jews, Judaism, Kim Davis, marriage, mormon, Mosaic, Magazine, Obergefell v. Hodges, religious freedom, Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Reynolds vs. the United States, RFRA, same-sex, secular, segregation, separation of church and state, Supreme Court, United States, urban, weddings


There has been an increasingly loud charge by some that religious freedom is under attack in the United States. For those whose work covers areas of the world where religious freedom is often violently and inflexibly inhibited, such a claim may seem laughable. After all, the freedom of religion clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution (December 15, 1791) states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Generally, then, in the United States the government may not impose a religion; neither may it prevent the practice of one. Of course, in practice the “separation of church and state,” as it is often called is not so simple. One can imagine religious practices, e.g. child sacrifice, that a religion might include but that the state would prohibit. Courts in the United States have generally concluded that religious beliefs can be freely expressed but that the actions springing from those beliefs may legitimately be regulated by the government. To help adjudicate which actions could be regulated and why, the United States Congress passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which said that the state could limit religious freedom only when prohibiting an action that served a compelling constitutional purpose that could not be met by less restrictive means. Recently religious freedom has been invoked more often as a reason to refuse to do an action. In one case, a family owned business, Hobby Lobby, objected to a government requirement that it provide healthcare insurance that included coverage under the Affordable Care Act of certain kinds of birth control that a company called Hobby Lobby believed were tantamount to abortion, which was against the religious beliefs of the owners of the closely held corporation. Other similar concerns have sprung from the Supreme Court’s ruling that same-sex marriage is lawful in the United States (June 26, 2015, Obergefell v. Hodges). Photographers and caterers who oppose same sex marriage on religious grounds and who say they would refuse to provide services for same-sex weddings have been accused of discrimination. Kim Davis, Rowan County, Kentucky Clerk, has refused to issue wedding licenses to same-sex couples on religious grounds. This paper explores these controversies and the ways the inflamed emotions and rhetoric have led to flawed arguments in the name of religious freedom and civil rights. There are inevitably disagreements between religious and civil rights. The conflicts may be particularly apparent in times of great societal change. These disagreements often erupt in bitter and emotional clashes. They can be extraordinarily difficult to adjudicate, but adjudication becomes nearly impossible if either side vilifies the other and misconstrues its arguments.