It’s possible that in the coming years there will be at least a temporary slowing in the erosion of religious liberty, but I can’t see the long-term trends altering. All Americans, including those who call themselves conservatives, are gradually growing accustomed to the elimination of the “third sector” of civil society and will find it increasingly difficult to understand why either the free markets or the State should be restrained from exerting their powers to their fullest. I expect that quite soon most Christians will cease even to ask for anything more from the State than freedom to worship.
For those of us who believe that civil society should be stronger, not weaker, and especially if our primary concern is for the health of religious institutions as the most important mediating forces in society, this change will pose a wide range of problems. For instance, the removal of tax breaks for religious institutions will surely be complete within a generation, and a range of policies will discourage charitable giving, which will make generosity harder — but not impossible for most of us. That’ll be a way for us to discover what we are made of.
But there may be stronger challenges. I suspect that within my lifetime American Christians, at least those who hold traditional theological and moral views, will be faced with a number of situations in which they will have to choose between compromising their consciences and civil disobedience. In such a situation there are multiple temptations. The most obvious is to silence the voice of conscience in order to get along. But there are also the temptations of responding in anger, in resentment, in bitterness, in vengeance. It might be a good exercise in self-examination for each of us to figure out which temptation is most likely for us.