Editor’s Note: The following essay is an excerpt adapted from the annual William E. and Carol G. Simon Lecture on Religion in American Public Life, sponsored by the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, given at Princeton University on March 3.

Many people say that religious liberty in our country is now under attack as never before.  That is true as far as it goes, and this essay includes some reasons why. But my chief aim is not to persuade you that it is worse than ever according to a common metric, as if to establish that what is happening now registers higher than the measurement for, say, American Indians, who over the century between their final settlement on reservations and passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978, endured countless denials of their religious liberty. Or lower than the measurement for, say, the Latter Day Saints (LDS), whose church Uncle Sam literally scattered, to secure the Mormons’ renunciation of plural marriage. By some obvious metrics, these episodes are worse than what is happening now.      

Nevertheless, by some other obvious metrics, what is happening now is worse than ever.

What is happening today, when considered in bold relief, in light of an understanding of the history behind attacks upon religious liberty in American history, is radically different in kind, more than in degree, than the LDS and Indian cases. What happened then happened to particular sects, each insular, geographically isolated, and with no footprint in the wider society.  What is happening now is happening on Main Street and to mainstream believers. And it is happening to religion. Although traditional Christians are the ones most often put to the test, they are casualties in a wider war. Americans today are engaged, wittingly for the most part, in an unprecedented contest over the meaning and value of religious liberty.  The trajectory points to effects much more sweeping, and more foundational, than anything that has happened before—by far.

I speak not just of effects upon believers, vast as they are liable to be. Because Americans have always had a robustly religious culture and prized religious liberty as their “first freedom,” the path we are on will eventually transform our whole political culture.

Here is one difference in kind between then and now. This difference affects those who believe, and also those who engage the religious question, which is to say, then, just about everyone.  What is the quest about? What is the substance of this thing called “religion”? Is it about me, and my dreams, my depths? Or is it about reality, visible and invisible, the truth about all that there is?

While people can be, and in America have been, free to decide what to believe, it is not the same for the “metaphysics” of religion. Individuals and even religious congregations do not readily choose to define—in a stable, sustainable way—the nature of what their beliefs are about. Culture supplies that. In America that means civil law, which so mightily influences—as well as reflects—culture, contributes to that supply.

Vocabularies of self-definition and self-fulfillment stalk today’s believers. That conception of religion already prevails in our law, in the academy, and in much of popular religion on the airwaves. It has found its way into even the more traditional churches. (The cultural critic Philip Rieff wrote in 2005 “that the orthodox are in the miserable situation of being orthodox for therapeutic reasons.”) It is the main reason why the non-church of those who are “spiritual” but “not religious” is the fastest growing denomination in America. Each one’s experience is the measure of his or her religion, and not the other way around. Christians at least used to hold that Jesus was the norm of all our religious experience, including our experience of Him.

This whole Copernican turn in the metaphysics of religion makes real religion—religion understood as an account of what there is including divine realities—practically inaccessible.   

One immediate legal effect of religion’s turn inward is that the conscientious religious objector, who is guided—if not commanded—by a transcendent source of meaning and value, now comes into view as a bit of an egotist. Perhaps that is already apparent; after all, what else should we call someone who insists on adhering to an “uncompromising,” “personal,” and “subjective” piece of his or her “private identity,” when abroad in the “public realm” of justice?

An English judge (named Law, it so happens) gave thematic expression to this development, in an opinion which backed the dismissal of a Christian relationship counselor who could not endorse the same-sex acts of his potential clients. Justice Law said that any exemption on religious grounds would be “unprincipled,” because it would “give effect to the force of subjective opinion” (read: religion) and thus could not “advance the general good on objective ground.”

Losing one’s livelihood in such a case is bad enough. Perhaps worse is being told that what you thought was a divine requirement really is located in a source of meaning and value much nearer to hand, namely, you.                                 

Let us finally consider three transformations wrought by the subjectivist turn in faith which have to do, not precisely with the flourishing of religion and its adherents, but with our political culture.   

First. From the founding until the day before yesterday, Americans believed that our experiment in liberty depended in an essential way upon the religious piety of the people. This is Federalist Ten, Washington’s Farewell Address, and countless political speeches, election sermons, and reflective essays by persons of all faiths—and even of none—through the 1960s. The Cold War called forth a renewed and more inclusive account of American’s religious-political identity, as recent books by Will Inboden, Kevin Schultz, and Jonathan Herzog convincingly show. (Yes, President-elect Dwight Eisenhower really did say, on December 22, 1952, at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, that “our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”) The civil rights, anti-war, and pro-life movements continued this tradition, though with this important variation: religion was no longer quite the bulwark of the republic, but the prophetic conscience of the nation. Even so, public religion was an important component of our political culture.

This whole notion that public well-being depends upon private virtue is now conclusively repudiated. Henceforth it is conformity in public (that’s the price of “citizenship”) and carnival in private. Under the influence of the Mystery Passage and its absurd exaltation of each one’s mental universe, one even wonders how any notion of genuine common good is possible.

Second. “Religious liberty” has always been an indelible fixture of our political culture, a rhetorical untouchable which everyone had to endorse as our cherished “first freedom.” Never mind that it was not literally so; our “First” Amendment was actually the third of 12 submitted by Congress to the states in September 1789. Three became one because the first two proposed amendments failed ratification (until 1992, when one of those first two—prohibiting Congressional salary increases save where election of a new House intervenes—was finally ratified by the required 38th state).

We have in any event adopted the Religion Clauses as our “first freedom.”

There is something more here than pride of place. That something more has been identified by many politicos and pundits, scholars, and even a few saints. Here is one authoritative expression of a constant theme of American political discourse. In his 2011 World Day of Peace Message (“Religious Freedom, the Path to Peace”) Pope Benedict XVI located religious freedom at the base of “all fundamental rights and freedoms, since it is their synthesis and keystone.”  It is, he said, quoting Pope Saint John Paul II, “the litmus test for the respect of all the other human rights.”

In other words: religious liberty is the linchpin of civil liberty. Now, personal autonomy, with religious liberty folded within it, is the linchpin—the “heart”—of constitutional civil liberty.

Third. Yale theologian George Lindbeck wrote in his magisterial book, The Nature of Doctrine, that “the privatism and subjectivism that accompanies the neglect of communal doctrines leads to weakening of social groups that are the chief bulwarks against chaos and against totalitarian efforts to master chaos.”

Lindbeck had in mind mainly the manner in which a religious community, wrapped tightly around a distinctive narrative history of its own and which narrative had little or no mortgage upon it held by political authorities, secured a safe space between persons and government. That is true enough, as is the following related but different point about the political importance of religious communities which are more organically integrated than an agglomeration of like-spirited individuals (as if a “church” was little more than a spiritual club). Churches can, and throughout American history have, mounted critiques of political and legal projects, as well as of economic institutions and practices, more powerful and effective than spiritual clubs could or did, and of a sort which will be nearly inconceivable for a nation of atomized religious subjects.  

This huge difference owes to more than the distinctive moral authority of churches and religious leaders, which was once as powerful as the moral authority of our government, though now much dissipated. The difference owes to more than the organizational and financial resources of the churches, although those have frequently been considerable. The difference owes to more than particular denominational histories and traditions, such as “peace” churches and others which honor a “preferential option for the poor.” The difference owes to this too: persons embedded in persisting and sometimes transnational religious communities which profess timeless moral truths, which truths are thought to have their source in God, and which persons understand themselves to be citizens in the world but not of it, are rather more likely to speak truth to power, than are so many unencumbered selves, no matter how “cosmopolitan” and “progressive” they fancy themselves to be.

Gerard V. Bradley is Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame.