The Social Psychology of Religious Liberty Depolarization

Posted: 31 Jul 2023 Last revised: 19 Oct 2023

See all articles by Asma Uddin

Asma Uddin

Columbus School of Law (Catholic University of America)

Date Written: July 20, 2023


America is fast-polarizing, with Americans increasingly sorting into opposing group identities defined not just by political disagreements but also by race, religion, political affiliation, and other traits—so-called “mega-identities.” Members of each mega-identity are bound together less by their alignment with one another and more by their shared opposition to the out-group. That oppositional group identity is so powerful that it even skews how Americans process information, generating a tendency to interpret data to fit one’s pre-held beliefs. Political scientists call this process “motivated reasoning.” Informational echo chambers, with social and traditional media outlets catering to one or the other group, exacerbate that process.

Among the many issues affected by contending group identities is religious liberty, including the U.S. Supreme Court’s religious liberty jurisprudence. As political mega-identities layer political group identities onto religious group identities, traditional Christianity is set up to be in contest with various minority groups. Among these minority groups, the clash with LGBTQ+ persons is particularly acute, owing largely to competing concepts of marriage, with many Christian conservatives defining marriage as an inherently religious relationship instead of a civil or legal relationship. In this dispute, one side sees Christians who hold to traditional sexual mores as akin to racists and believes they should be treated as such. For the other side, traditional Christians struggling to live by their values are victims in a society that insists they must conform to changing mores.

This conflict has come before the Court in three cases: Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, and 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis, and it was in the backdrop of Obergefell v. Hodges and Bostock v. Clayton County. In the first three, the religious claimant prevailed, though narrowly. In the latter two, the Court delivered important and decisive wins for LGBTQ+ individuals but singled out religious dissent to LGBTQ+ rights as uniquely deserving protection.

Scholars have widely diverging interpretations of the socio-political effects of these cases. Some scholars believe that, for a variety of reasons, the Court’s approach in these cases is fueling grievances on both sides, worsening political divides, and benefiting traditional Christians to the detriment of marginalized LGBTQ+ individuals. In contrast, other scholars see the Court not as a cultural crusader but as a problem-solver. They argue that the Court is not only trying to strike a compromise between LGBTQ+ and religious rights, but that it is using the religion clauses more broadly to help Americans co-exist peacefully among deep differences.

Is the Court escalating or de-escalating socio-political conflict? Existing scholarly responses rely on a variety of sources to answer that question, but none look to social science. This Article fills that gap by incorporating insights from social psychology. It assesses the Court’s use of methods that have been shown to offset motivated reasoning and help group members nuance their perceptions of contentious issues. The two primary methods are aporia and affirmation, the so-called “expressive virtues.” In brief, aporia is a rhetorical device that acknowledges the complexity of diverse viewpoints in an argument, and affirmation is the conveying of information that affirms an individual’s or group’s position. This Article argues that the Court’s use of expressive virtues helps it negotiate among contending group identities in a manner that complicates the cultural conversation. That complexification, in turn, de-escalates socio-political tensions.

This paper proceeds in five Parts. Part I.A. provides an overview of American polarization and the role of mega-identities, motivated reasoning, and echo chambers. Part I.B. looks at how this dynamic plays out with respect to religion and religious liberty generally, and the contest between Christian dissenters and LGBTQ+ rights specifically.

Part II turns to the Court. Part II.A. traces the pro-religion phenomenon at the Roberts Court, where religious claimants, including Christian claimants, have secured successive wins. Part II.B and C. survey scholarly and other commentary about that trend, with specific attention to the interpretations of the Court as a peacemaker. According to the peacemaking interpretation, the Court accepts that traditional Christians have legitimate vulnerabilities in a society where dominant cultural norms conflict with their beliefs. To de-escalate the conflict, the Court is carving space for each side of the religion-LGBTQ+ conflict to live in accordance with its beliefs and identity. One way to interpret this strategy is that the Court is actively generating a live-and-let-live regime. Part II.C. elaborates on how live-and-let-live accords with depolarization.

Part III builds on the peacemaking analysis with insight from social psychological studies on group identities and motivated reasoning. Part III.A. describes those studies and the techniques of aporia and affirmation. Part III.B. traces the Court’s use of aporia and affirmation in its religion-LGBTQ+ cases.

Part IV extends the analysis beyond the Court and considers the broader social effect of the Court’s aporetic and affirming opinions, with a focus on how these opinions have been interpreted by cultural intermediaries, led to behavioral shifts among relevant service providers, and/or influenced the resolution of related cases. Among other sources, the paper relies on two empirical studies on the effect of Masterpiece Cakeshop and Fulton on similar service providers.

Part V considers the limitations to the analysis, with a focus on other Court rulings within and beyond its religious liberty cases that have exacerbated perceptions of the Court as a partisan player and worsened cultural division.

Suggested Citation

Uddin, Asma, The Social Psychology of Religious Liberty Depolarization (July 20, 2023). Available at SSRN:

Asma Uddin (Contact Author)

Columbus School of Law (Catholic University of America) ( email )

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