Mollie Hemingway on Religious Liberty in Modern America

On November 4th, 2017, Mollie Hemingway spoke at the Buckley Program’s conference on The Constitution and the Courts.

Mollie Hemingway is a senior editor at The Federalist. A longtime journalist, her work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the Washington Post, CNN, National Review, GetReligion, Ricochet, Christianity Today, Federal Times, Radio & Records and other publications.

The Buckley Program had the chance to interview Ms. Hemingway at the Omni Hotel in New Haven, CT. The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited from a longer interview.

By: Alexander Sikorski

Alexander: How serious is the threat to religious liberty in America today?

Mollie: There are good things going on, and there are bad things going on. I actually think the legal framework could not be better. We have the first amendment, we have other really good legislation like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which isn’t just at the federal level, but it’s also in 21 states, and we have hundreds of years of jurisprudence refining these ideas. Generally we’re in pretty good shape that way. So that’s the good, but the bad is that we’re losing something culturally about understanding why we have religious liberty and why it’s important and why it should be highly valued even when it comes into conflict with other things that we care about.

Alexander: What impact do you think the media today has on the discussion of religious liberty?

Mollie: So there are many cultural attacks on religious liberty, but the media handling of this issue is just one major problem that I’ve noticed. I don’t think people have a good historical understanding of how religious liberty developed or why it’s important. They have a hostility based on a lack of practice. Reporters tend to be really good at caring about freedom of the press, because we practice it. Studies show that journalists are less likely to go to church then the average American, less likely to value religion in their day to day lives, and that is reflected in their hostility to religious practices. They also see a conflict between religious beliefs and the values that they hold dear, which may or may not be true, but that’s what they think. And so this is reflected in horrifically bad coverage that fails to understand the laws that they cover, the religious views of the people they cover, and the importance of religious liberty alongside things like freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Alexander: How do we resolve a lot of the apparent differences between American values like gender equality, that are enshrined in the constitution, and certain religious practices.

Mollie: So I think first off that if you really believe that this is a society where all religions are welcome, you make sure that there really is a conflict, meaning that people can really voluntarily organize themselves however they wish with whatever belief system they wish. Frequently we are told that there is a conflict, but really the conflict is that the government is overreaching and trying to have too much involvement in people’s lives. But when there is a conflict, that is actually where Religious Freedom Restoration Act legislation works really well. The government says that they have some important thing that they need to enforce, it comes into conflict with a religious belief of some group of people, and both sides get to make their case. The government gets to say here it is and why it is important that we restrict this religious viewpoint, and the religious people say why it is so important and so foundational. And then you can go back and forth on that. I think that there are lots of extremes that people can agree on. If you had a religion that supported child sacrifice or something like that, it’s a no brainer that the government has an interest in restricting that. When it comes to other things of a much less dramatic nature, I think we should try to defer to the religious adherence practice, and only if it’s really important for the government to accomplish something, only then can we restrict religious practice.

Alexander: There is another tension between the government’s secular values and many people’s religious values. This conflict comes to a head in the education system, where we have public schools which are supposed to be entirely secular and private schools which tend to be quite religious. Should the government be forcing its citizens to have a common curriculum which develops american values, or should it allow citizens to be educated according to religious beliefs which may or may not adhere to American values

Mollie: That’s a really good question, and I have a feeling that this issue will become more and more important as people flee the American public school system. One of the problems right now is that public schools aren’t really secular. They are quite religious in enforcing almost doctrinal views on sex and sexuality, and so religious families are finding these places extremely hostile, whether on denying the reality that sexual distinctions exist or other things that are really foundational and a direct attack on anything from reality to religious viewpoints. People get nervous when too many children are in religious schools, because of the issue that you raised concerning shared American values, but I think that there is such a lengthy precedent in allowing parents to educate their children, you’re allowed to homeschool, where you have full control of your child’s education. Lutheran schools and Catholic schools have existed for hundreds of years and have shown themselves to not just be good at teaching values that match with American values, they excel at it. They are doing a better job of teaching children to love and respect their country than a lot of their public school counterparts. So the question is on other religious schools and whether they can do a good job and whether not doing a good job will make people worry about allowing children to be educated there. However, I think that the more pressing issue is still public schools teaching untruths, such as that sexual distinctions don’t exist. That is such a departure from science and reality, and if we’re willing to tolerate that, I don’t see how you can make an argument that there are things to be worried about in private religious schools.

Alexander Sikorski is a sophomore in Pierson College.