On legislating morality

Craig Calhoun comments on the religious right, and some of the issues it creates.



Craig Calhoun comments on the religious right, and some of the issues it creates.


It’s a sad thing that the new religious right that rose up among American Christians in the late 20th century now gives people their primary example of religion in politics. There have been worse examples – we can go back to the era of the Crusades – but this is a very particular example and it crowds out a lot of other things.

Even during that late 20th-century era, on into our own, in which the religious right of American politics was very strong and was condemning abortion or campaigning over a variety of so-called moral issues, there was a set of progressive religious engagements – churches that were declaring themselves sanctuaries for immigrants, for example. So the right wing didn’t own and capture Christianity, let alone religion as a whole. It was also the case that a variety of people drew motivation from their religious beliefs for participation in other not explicitly religious activities – or, indeed, for resisting some of the actions of the new religious right.

Some Americans are very sensitive to the idea that if you start legislating religious principles, you are risking freedom of religion. If anyone legislates morality, they say, that will restrict religious freedom, that would legislate one view of what religion teaches and block others. And America has been founded on a religious freedom. That doesn’t mean eliminating religion from the public sphere, but it means being open to any and all possible contributions. And to legislate prayer in schools, for example, inevitably means legislating some sort of prayer in schools and not others. And it means a reduction, not an increase, in religious freedom.

So for those people who think the religious right of the late 20th and early 21st centuries is the prime example, there is a loss of examples of much more progressive engagements of religion in the protection of freedom, not the legislation of morality.