At Liberty to Pray (and Evangelize and Legislate

By Ross, Dennis S. | Conscience, Winter 2017 | Go to article overview

At Liberty to Pray (and Evangelize and Legislate


Ross, Dennis S., Conscience


The Production of American Religious Freedom

Finbarr Curtis

(NYU Press, 2016, 240 pp)

978-1479856763, $28.00

Freedom of religion speaks to the liberty to practice as one sees fit. Freedom from religion means protection from those who would impose their faith into the private lives of others. In The Production of American Religious Freedom, Professor Finbarr Curtis demonstrates that the religious impulse to convert everyone and establish spiritual purity for America has a storied history in the United States. In one consistent theme emerging from this study, those often described as Evangelicals have consistently upheld that their freedom of religion must triumph over others' right to freedom from the imposition of evangelical Christianity.

The book is a loosely connected collection of eight essays opening with a discussion of a 19th-century revivalist preacher, Charles Grandison Finney, and closing with an insightful look at the US Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision. For all the talk of religious freedom these days, Professor Curtis argues that there is wide and strong disagreement over the precise meaning of the term, with that disagreement evident in the public square, government and the press. The malleability of the phrase "religious freedom" allows the meaning to be shaped by social, political and other forces, and, as a result, freedom of religion permits imposing on another person's freedom from religion.

In the first chapter, we read of Rev. Charles Grandison Finney, who sought to bring sinners into the faith by "melting down" their sin, allegedly for their own good. After all, if he has the only truth and your spirit is at risk and his faith demands that he lift you up from faithlessness and sin, then he has the benevolent responsibility to enter your life and bring you along with him. In a later chapter, 20th-century New York governor, presidential candidate and political trailblazer A1 Smith reflects his Catholic background by articulating a vision for progressive public policies that would advance the collective wellbeing. The author is at his best in the final two chapters, offering probing analysis of the intelligent design (ID) movement and the Hobby Lobby decision.

Curtis calls attention to ID proponents for adopting the clever strategy of desacralizing religious teaching to pass a low-bar smell test so that it looks like science. ID advocates may not directly argue that the Grand Canyon came from Noah's flood but merely respect the possibility, an argument calculated to increase the chances of this purported science worming itself into public education. When ID is rejected by those--secular, godless--liberals who believe in evidence-based science education, ID champions cry foul and thunder how it is bigotry to teach only one scientific theory of evolution. They go on to argue that teaching evolution debases the faith of their kids. They demand that public schools teach both, evolution and ID; it's only fair to give kids the information they need to make up their own minds. This model serves other religious initiatives that attack the safety of birth control and safe abortion, as well as gay rights and the advancement of climate protection.

The US Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision on contraception coverage in employer-sponsored health insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act allows some bosses the freedom to block employees' access to birth control, with troubling implications. …

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