by Jacob Lupfer November 22, 2016 for Commonweal.org
The debate over religious liberty in the United States is broken. Until recently a bedrock commitment shared across both parties, the consensus about our “first freedom” has quickly unraveled. Especially since the Supreme Court decided in 2015 to legalize same-sex marriages nationwide, religious liberty is the latest culture-war battleground. Too many on both sides have hardened and radicalized their positions.
Over the course of this unraveling, Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs has undertaken a rigorous research program on the subject. Its Religious Freedom Project is the only university-based center devoted to scholarship on religious freedom. Dozens of scholars from a diverse array of institutions and faith traditions have contributed to these efforts, a mix of discussion, advocacy, and research into the state of religious freedom in the United States and around the world.
The Religious Freedom Project has led to the creation of a new institute and has strengthened countless ecumenical, interfaith, and academic partnerships. It recently convened a daylong symposium to discuss its research about religious freedom and the common good, which I attended with some skepticism: whenever I mention religious freedom issues to anyone in Washington, they immediately want to debate about Kim Davis or wedding vendors. Partisans often seem ignorant of the philosophical foundations and social meaning of religious freedom domestically and globally.
Georgetown regularly hosts difficult conversations about complex, contested issues of morals and justice, even when the political discourse about them is fruitless and broken. Just this year, the university had a sensitive, respectful dialogue about abortion rights after Planned Parenthood CEO Cecile Richards spoke on campus in April. Georgetown also recently lamented and repented of its own slaveholding past.
In discussing the relationship between religious freedom and human flourishing, scholars humbly and honestly presented their findings—a welcome reprieve from the political posturing that has dominated much of the public debate on these matters. Researchers suggested a link between religious freedom and desirable social outcomes, all the while conceding that the causal effect is difficult to quantify or precisely estimate. The scholar-advocate Rebecca Shah, for example, found that women in India who are religious converts are likelier to report sexual abuse because their faith provides a heightened feeling of worth and expectation of dignity. Shah’s scholarship also points to the urgency of studying the content of religious belief, not merely affiliation, a finding that should sharpen research agendas across the social sciences. Too often, pollsters or scholars identify respondents as Evangelical or Catholic in research studies without knowing anything about their religious beliefs or practices. But if religion is a potent social force, then we must know something about faith beyond a nominal affiliation. Read the rest of this important article at Commonweal