Religious freedom is declining in the United States. If the history of freedom were graphed, this would be the lowest point in a curve since the 1960s, when the Supreme Court issued several momentous decisions on school prayer. Our level of religious freedom is falling, and all signs indicate that it will continue to do so.
In his new book, The Rise and Decline of American Religious Freedom, University of San Diego law professor Steven D. Smith notes this trend and explains its causes. In this sense, the book is pessimistic. Yet there is a hopeful note in the midst of this pessimism. According to Smith, the original genius of the United States, what he calls “the American settlement,” which used to protect religious freedom, has long been lost. But is it gone forever? Nothing lasts forever in this world, the author reminds us, including governments. But here’s the hopeful part: Smith argues that, although it will be difficult, it is still possible to recover what made the United States a land of free and flourishing belief.
The concept of the American settlement is central to the book. It is worth examining in detail because it reveals Smith’s intellectual penetration into the roots of the rise and decline of religious freedom in the United States. “The American settlement” is the name that Smith gives to the distinctively American version of religious freedom, under which, Smith writes:
religious freedom expanded, the nation grew more religiously inclusive and the secular and religious perspectives often managed not only to coexist but also to collaborate in supporting a pluralistic but more or less united people.
The American settlement is both a wildly provocative concept and an enlightening one. It is provocative because it tells a different story about the constitutional commitment to religious freedom, and it is enlightening because it illuminates the potential of the religion clauses of the First Amendment.