The following essay drew inspiration from the Buckley Program’s dinner seminar and discussion on religious freedom with Mary Eberstadt on 1.25.17

By: Noah Daponte-Smith

The past eight years have been something of a disaster for religious conservatives. President Obama may have campaigned in 2008 on an anti-gay marriage platform, but by the time he left office last week, gay marriage had become the law of the land, the Affordable Care Act was forcing ecclesiastical orders to provide contraception and abortion to their employees, and the weight of governmental authority and public acrimony were pressuring bakers who still maintained traditionalist conceptions of marriage into providing cakes for gay weddings in violation of their consciences.

It comes as no surprise, then, that so many traditionalist Christians — those who do not belong to those churches that have largely succumbed to the tide of the modern secularist revolution — believe their world is facing an existential threat. It is this threat which Mary Eberstadt’s new book, It’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its Enemies, seeks to bring to light, and which Eberstadt discussed with the student fellows of the Buckley Program on her recent visit to New Haven. Eberstadt’s book, short but powerful, is a testament to the weight of discrimination and social animus faced by traditionalist religious conservatives in an increasingly secular world. That discrimination, though often scoffed at by many liberals, is real, and surely one of the issues most pressing on the Christian mind in the summer and fall of 2016. The question is one of almost existential importance: At stake seems to be the matter of whether one can truly, freely be a Christian in today’s America.

As I waited for my twice-delayed flight to board in shimmering, subtle McGhee-Tyson Airport, Air Force One descended into Knoxville, Tennessee. This Presidential visit had no scarcity of fanfare – miles of interstate blocked off, a kaleidoscopic display of armed officers from various divisions, and even an entire floor of a local hospital occupied by Service agents in the event of an emergency. This kind of preparation I find entirely appropriate, though I question the purpose and result of President Obama’s visit to my quiet town of the South.

It was in Knoxville that the President would announce his new plan, “America’s College Promise,” a clumsier parroting of Tennessee’s own state-level initiative Tennessee Promise. The state’s governor, Bill Haslam, has become well-known for his activism in the realm of education: spearheading the drafting of Common Core State Standards as a member of Achieve, Inc., expanding TVAS (a student performance based teacher evaluation system), and seeking to fill an increasing job demand throughout the state requiring college degrees. The governor has made substantial progress, despite my fundamental frustration with his pragmatic, career-concerned motives.

On Sunday, October 12, three swastikas were chalked on the sidewalk on Old Campus. Dean Holloway, the next day, sent a campus-wide email condemning this act, affirming a campus culture that values respectful openness, and asking those with information to come forward. This situation presents us with the difficult question of how we ought to deal with offensive but anonymous acts of defacement based in hatred. Sure, community-wide and public condemnation of such acts and promotion of more positive and respectful attitudes are important first steps, but can we prevent these situations from occurring in the future?

Leonard Schleifer, the CEO of Regeneron, is a billionaire. Regeneron, a global, extremely successful biotech company, has seen the best performance in the S&P 500 for the past three years. A little unknown fact about Schleifer though is that he started out operating a small snow-shoveling business.  This surprising revelation led me to begin thinking about the “rags-to-riches” dream associated with the United States. Specifically, I began to wonder whether or not it would be fair to say this dream still exists today. Sure, we haven’t fully pulled out of the economic downturn. Sure, there are vast differences between the wealth of the very wealthy and the very poor. Sure there are many Americans receiving welfare assistance and food stamps. All of that aside, I believe that to an extent, this traditional American dream most certainly still exists.

This year, President Salovey’s Freshman Address was on free expression. His speech focused on a report on that topic written by a committee appointed by President Kingman Brewster. Notable among the members of the committee was Professor Woodward, Sterling Professor of History and scholar of the American South. Salovey remarked “…it is important on occasions like this one to remind ourselves why unfettered expression is so essential on a university campus.” I wholeheartedly agree. Nonetheless, while it is true that free expression is on the defensive today, I think the more interesting phenomenon is the increasing social stigma attached to expressing views that are unpopular, different, or simply as of yet not well articulated and explained.