Matthew S. Hedstrom
Liberalism describes an interrelated set of political and religious frameworks that grew out of the Enlightenment and the English, American, and French revolutions, though the term itself dates only from the early 19th century. Liberalism values individual rights and freedoms, secular rule of law, and reasoned public discourse, and has become the dominant political and economic philosophy of the Western democracies. Critics argue that there are oppressions entailed in this dominance, especially for women and racial, religious, and sexual minorities—members of groups that stand outside liberalism’s implicit, normative subjectivity—while proponents contend that liberal individualism has provided the conceptual framework for civil and human rights movements.
Liberalism has shaped religion in the West in two interrelated senses. As a political philosophy, liberalism considers religion to be a matter of personal conscience and free association, and advocates broad (if always imperfectly applied) religious freedoms. The religion clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution represent the quintessential legal forms of liberalism regarding religion. Liberalism has also greatly shaped religious thought and practice, especially among European and North American Protestants. Religious liberals have sought to apply reason, modern scientific and scholarly advances, and notions of minority rights and freedom of conscience to theology and ethics. Religious liberalism has shaped mainline Protestantism and related religious movements such as Unitarianism and Quakerism most especially, but also laid the groundwork for the growth of post-Protestant and post-Christian forms of spirituality. Given the historic dominance of Protestantism in the United States, Protestant liberalism has determined the nature of American secularism and thereby required theological and political adaptation from religious minorities, most notably Roman Catholics and Jews.