Tad Walch, Deseret News
New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat speaks at the combined Mormons Studies Conference and Religious Freedom Symposium at Utah Valley University on Monday, April 11, 2016.

OREM — The future of religious liberty debate in the United States might look a lot like what happened to Mormons in the 19th century, New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat said Monday night at Utah Valley University.

"I think it's entirely possible we're living through a strange era in which essentially all religious conservatives are the new Mormons, and the treatment that was meted out to Mormons in the 19th century is a more violent but possibly relevant prologue to what is to come," said Douthat, who delivered the opening, combined keynote address for UVU's annual Mormon Studies Conference and Religious Freedom Symposium.

"The 19th century is a good template for what we'll be seeing in religious liberty debates next 20 to 30 to 40 years."

In the 1800s, American religious liberty operated on a Protestant moral consensus with no room for Mormon polygamy or Catholic hierarchy, he said. Polygamy, for example, was called a relic of barbarism by the Republican Party in the late 19th century.

Douthat, a Catholic who sees bigotry and racism in those attacks on Catholicism, made a case for how Mormons and conservative Catholics, Jews and Muslims could hope for a different outcome in coming years, but he said American elites and liberals expect religious traditions to adapt and conform to a new moral and ethical consensus based on the sexual revolution.

"Religious groups have conformed themselves before, they believe, so it's not crazy for them to expect that will happen again," he said.

Mormons jettisoned polygamy and became the example of American family values. Catholics adopted a different stance on religious liberty. Those changes brought them into the mainstream — but now make outsiders believe they simply can be expected to adapt again to a new "consensus" that accepts same-sex marriage and reproductive right, Douthat said.

"The irony is particularly rich for Mormons themselves, because essentially Mormonism spent a great deal of time and energy adapting itself to a 19th-century Protestant view of marriage, pushing polygamy away, pushing polygamist communities to the margins of a greater Mormon community, so that by the mid-20th century there is no group in the United States that is more classically American in its orientation toward family and family values than Latter-day Saints."

Douthat said that he hopes what he called "elite America" will spend less time worrying about the problems it sees in Biblical sexual morality and recognize the importance of the contributions of religious groups in American society.

"Elite American should be sending fleets of experts out to Utah to basically try to figure out what Mormons are doing right and how that could be operationalized on a mass scale, because the reality is that if you look at all of the things that contemporary American liberalism is most concerned with — issues of inequality and upward mobility and the successful assimilation of immigrants and so — Utah and what you might call the greater Mormon region in the United States is doing far better than almost any other part of the U.S.

"It's also the part of the United States that is most resistant to Donald Trump. Those two things are not unconnected."

Conservative religious groups can change the future trajectory of American religious liberty debates by remaining steadfast. If outsiders see the internal debates in these religious traditions fragmenting those traditions, they will continue to bring pressure to motivate what they see as inevitable acceptance of the new consensus, Douthat said. If religious traditions do not fragment, liberals may decide it isn't worth trying to change them and leave them alone.

For example, if the LDS Church defends BYU's tax-exampt status, and the Catholic Church defends Notre Dame's and evangelical leaders defend that of Baylor University, it's possible liberals will decide to avoid fighting such sustained battles.

Douthat has a second hope for the future of the debate.

"The core reality of contemporary American life is that religion is in decline in the United States, but where religion is resilient and flourishing, those are usually places where the American social fabric is still resilient and flourishing," he said.

"My hope for the future of the religious liberty debate is that that reality and the implications of that reality will prevent the sort of low-level warfare that we're seeing now from turning into a kind of epic religious-institution breaking or destroying conflict, that basically the people who lead and run American will look at the good that American religion clearly does and the good that conservative religion especially very clearly does, and essentially stay their hand from some of the conflicts that they've already started and that I fear they're about to push a little further."