Does Religious Freedom Have a Future?


American religious freedom arose in a political community that, although emphatically not the City of God, officially acknowledged God’s sovereignty. The nation’s commitment to religious freedom was grounded in that unambiguous (though perhaps not unambivalent) acknowledgment. And it was written into the nation’s constitutional law and tradition. Today, by contrast, religious freedom is required to make its way in what is demonstrably if not quite officially the City of Man. Although our situation is murky, the sovereignty of God is no longer officially acknowledged. Indeed, any such acknowledgment is forbidden in principle– actual practice is messier, as usual-- by the meaning currently ascribed to the First Amendment; and the inherited vestiges of such an acknowledgment are explained away as merely ceremonial. Instead, an almost opposite situation prevails: constitutional doctrines and the political order generally are regularly oriented to the sovereignty of human beings, or of “the people”– including both individual persons and the state to whom those persons are deemed to have delegated governing authority. So, can the inherited commitment to religious freedom be transplanted to, and maintained on, this new foundation of human sovereignty? It is a theoretical question with considerable practical urgency, and the answer is far from clear. This paper will reflect on that question.

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