Nathan C. Walker
A society’s political and legal treatment of religion is a distinct indicator of the health of a democracy. Consequently, high levels of political and legal contempt for religion in the United States can be an indicator that partners in American democracy may be going through a divorce. By drawing upon studies that measure voter attitudes and behaviors, as well as research that tracks the levels of social hostilities and violence toward religion, students of democracy see into two of society’s most revealing mirrors: political rhetoric and the nation’s laws. These reflections can unveil powerful questions about the true character of a nation: will democracy rule from a place of contempt for the religious other, or from a state of passive political tolerance, or from a constitutional commitment to actively protect the rights of those with whom we disagree? Theories of political tolerance and psychological studies of contempt prove helpful in examining contemporary levels of religious animosity in politics and law. The Religious Contempt Scale, as introduced in this essay, gauges a society’s willingness to tolerate the religious other. When special attention is given to the frequency and degrees of severity of expressions of contempt, it becomes clear that contempt has political utility: to motivate the intolerant to gain access to power and, in turn, to motivate those who are intolerant of intolerance to remove them.