OREM — In the mind of Michael O. Leavitt, former secretary of health and human services and governor of the state of Utah, the time is right for a serious, thoughtful, well-considered discussion on the subject of religious liberty.
“In the complicated and diffuse way that democracies deliberate, our nation is engaged in the most serious discussion about the role of faith in America since Ben Franklin and his colleagues crafted the Bill of Rights,” Leavitt said to several hundred listeners in Utah Valley University’s Events Arena on Tuesday night. “The stakes are high because the outcome will determine the degree to which Americans are free to practice their religion.”
Leavitt was the keynote speaker for Religious Liberty in an Age of Change, a two-day conference sponsored by UVU’s Center for Constitutional Studies that drew some of the nation's biggest names in the field of religious freedom debate. And according to the center’s director, Rick A. Griffin, the conference is not only being held at the right time, but also in the right place.
“I can’t think of a better place to have a religious freedom conference than in the great state of Utah,” Griffin said moments before Leavitt’s keynote presentation. “Utah’s pioneers knew the importance of religious freedom, and it continues to be valued and cherished here.”
Which is not to say that respect for religious freedom is exclusive to the state of Utah, Griffin said. But Leavitt said that “even as we are surrounded by evidence of all the good that faith can do, it’s hard to escape the feeling that we are a nation where faith is waning.”
He cited a study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life suggesting that 1 in 5 American adults today have no religious affiliation.
“As a consequence,” Leavitt said, “the voice of faith speaks more softly than at any time in American history. In contrast, the opponents of religious freedom have gained volume and confidence.
“This shift poses a real challenge to our first freedom,” he continued. “Too often religious freedom is lost by forfeit. Not because people of faith don’t care, but because they take it for granted or underestimate the intensity of the effort to limit religious freedom.”
Not everyone who spoke during UVU's conference agreed with Leavitt’s assessment. While not speaking specifically of the influence of religion in the public square, Jonathan Turley of George Washington University expressed what he feels is the “need to move beyond morality legislation.”
“Morality-based legislation is on the decline,” said Turley, a nationally recognized legal scholar and award-winning blogger. “I don’t mourn its passing.
“The ultimate expression of morality is to say, ‘We’re not going to force others to live by our rules,’” he continued. “The real meaning of tolerance is to tolerate people who believe and act differently from you.”
Noah Feldman, a professor at Harvard Law School and contributing writer for New York Times Magazine, said we could approach this utopian level of tolerance if “we could get beyond our background assumption that people who have a different perspective than us are somehow oppressing us.”
“This goes for both sides of almost any debate,” he added. “Advocates on both sides are deeply sincere and well-motivated by their own principles. They really and truly believe in them. (But) they each imagine that they are deeply under attack by the other, and they each believe they are small and are about to be swamped by the other side.”
This is especially true of evangelicals, said Randall Balmer of Dartmouth College, who grew up firmly engrained in evangelical teachings and who trained to become an evangelical minister.
“I think there is a misconception by many evangelicals that they are a minority, and they play on this sense of victimization,” he said. Even so, he continued, “I think religion does belong in the arena of public discourse. There is nothing wrong with passing laws that reflect religious values, as long as we remember that one of the great principles is respect for the rights of minorities. We are not a majoritarian culture.”
Besides, said Mark L. Rienzi of Catholic University of America, “we’re far better off when we acknowledge that people have religious differences.”
“It’s OK if we have religious differences,” he said. “Let them have those differences and get on with their lives.”
As an example he cited the recent controversy involving the Jim Henson Company’s decision to discontinue its business relationship with Chick-fil-A as a result of Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy’s statements in opposition to gay marriage.
“I just don’t think anybody’s rights were violated here,” Rienzi said. “Dan had every right to state his beliefs, and the Muppet company had every right to say, 'We just can’t do business with that.' I think that’s pretty much how we ought to be living in a pluralistic society.”
Leavitt seemed to echo that sentiment during his conference keynote address when he expressed his “firm belief that the free expression of religion and other interests can — and, indeed, must — co-exist.”
As an example he referred to the 15 states that have now legalized gay marriage or civil unions.
“While I remain a supporter of traditional marriage, I also understand that this is an issue that will play out in our democracy — and ultimately the majority may not side with me,” Leavitt said. “While none of us knows exactly how it will unfold, this we do know: Today religious freedom is caught in the crossfire of this debate and it need not be. If through democratic processes our nation recognizes gay marriage and protects sexual orientation as a civil right, it need not and must not do so at the expense of religious freedom. Gay marriage and religious freedom should co-exist.”
Regardless of the outcome of the gay marriage debate, “our religious beliefs can help us create a path toward the better future that awaits,” Leavitt said.
“We will make the case for the good that people of faith, exercising their freedom, are called to do,” he said. “We live in uncertain times. Our debt is too high, our opportunities too few. Families are struggling and Americans are looking for answers to the great challenges we face. In this, the religious community can help show the way — for our faith extends not only to a higher power, but also to a better tomorrow. We believe in ‘one nation under God’ and in the promise it holds.”
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