While it's hard to pinpoint the precise moment it happened, it's clear that most American discussions of religious liberty have turned into shouting matches about "religious liberty," a term now commonly framed in "scare quotes."
The recent U.S. Commission on Civil Rights "Peaceful Coexistence" report made this clear, claiming the First Amendment's defense of the free exercise of religion is not as important as some people think. Thus, "civil rights" now trump "religious liberty."
The commission stressed: "Religious exemptions to the protections of civil rights based upon classifications such as race, color, national origin, sex, disability status, sexual orientation, and gender identity, when they are permissible, significantly infringe upon these civil rights."
In a quote that went viral online, commission chair Martin Castro added: "The phrases 'religious liberty' and 'religious freedom' will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia or any form of intolerance."
This creates a major problem for Americans who are worried about civil public discourse or even the odds of having friendly conversations with friends, family and neighbors, noted Scott McConnell, head of LifeWay Research.
"What did our parents tell us when we were growing up? They warned us not to talk about politics, not to talk about religion and not to talk about sex," he said in an interview.
"Well, it's hard to talk about anything that matters these days -- like religious liberty -- without talking about all three of those things, and usually at the same time. ... No wonder people are tense."
Just how tense are Americans, when it comes to talking about religion? According to a new LifeWay survey, conducted during the chaotic presidential primaries in March, six in 10 American adults are more comfortable talking about politics than discussing matters of faith, spirituality and religion.
McConnell said researchers allowed survey participants to use their personal definitions of what is "political" and what is "spiritual."
Thus, from the viewpoint of traditional religious believers, a chat with friends or neighbors about sex and marriage might be seen as a "religious." However, people who consider themselves liberal believers or secular nonbelievers would probably view the same conversation as a potentially hostile debate about politics.
So who does, and who does not, want to talk about faith issues these days? Key findings in the LifeWay survey included:
-- About a quarter of the people surveyed said they would prefer to have fewer discussions of spiritual and religious issues. Only one in five said they wanted more.
-- To no surprise, evangelicals (32 percent), Americans 55 years old and over (26 percent) and people living in the Bible Belt (24 percent) were the most likely to say they had spiritual conversations "less often than I would like."
-- Latinos (38 percent), young adults (35 percent) and people who live in the highly secular West (30 percent) were most likely to say they were involved in spiritual conversations "more often than I would like."
-- Two-thirds of Americans (64 percent) said they had at least three conversations about politics in the previous month, while only 8 percent reported no conversations about politics. Fewer than half (44 percent) had three or more religious or spiritual conversations, while 22 percent said they had zero conversations about spiritual matters.
-- Men (69 percent) and nonevangelical Americans (65 percent) said they would rather talk about politics. Meanwhile, evangelicals (63 percent), people who go to church at least once a week (57 percent) and women (51 percent) said they would rather talk about spiritual matters than politics.
A key takeaway is that, for many Americans, religious and spiritual issues have become controversial, painful or worse. Clearly, the rising number of debates about religious freedom and sexual freedom represent the front lines in this culture war over the nation's future.
"We seem to be increasingly divided about the value to religious faith, period," said McConnell. "More and more people seem to be wondering if there is something intrinsically positive and valuable about religious people having these beliefs -- beliefs that mean they cannot accept certain behaviors in their own lives and the lives of others. ...
"An increasing number of Americans are having trouble understanding the idea of religious convictions really mattering at all, in real life."
(Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King's College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.)