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Is Religious Freedom Necessary for Other Freedoms to Flourish?

This is indeed a big question. It implicates an array of philosophical issues and scholarly disciplines, but it also has distinctly practical, even strategic, dimensions. That is to say, it raises questions not only about human nature and human flourishing, but about the freedom and stability of whole societies, as well as international peace.

The “other freedoms” with which we are here concerned typically exist in a mature democratic system of civil society and ordered liberty. They include the freedoms of expression, association, assembly, economic activity, and equality under the law, and freedom from persecution or unjust violence.

If the answer to our question is “yes,” then religious liberty should be seen not only as a right that is critical to individuals, but also as a kind of linchpin for the bundle of freedoms that enable democracy to take root. If the other freedoms are somehow dependent on religious liberty, nations experimenting with democratic governance (think Egypt or Iraq) are unlikely to succeed without it. Furthermore, without religious freedom they are less likely to contain or eliminate violent religious persecution, extremism, or terrorism.

If, on the other hand, the answer is “no,” then religious freedom can be seen as important or unimportant, but — in either case — largely separable from human flourishing or the other freedoms characteristic of successful democracies.

We will return to human flourishing at the end of this essay. As for the broader issue of ordered liberty, both history and modern scholarship provide compelling evidence that religious freedom is indeed a necessary condition for sustaining the liberties that make democracy last. Of course, the other liberties are also critical. In a very real sense, each is necessary to the whole. In the 21st century, however, religious freedom is in global deficit (seventy percent of the world’s people lives in nations in which religious freedom is highly or very highly restricted). This factor increases the salience of our big question.

What is at Stake?

Before exploring the answer, let us briefly define what we are talking about. Religion can usefully be understood as the human quest for other-than-human sources of ultimate meaning and purpose. It typically entails an effort, by individuals and communities, to understand, commune with, and express truths about a transcendent reality. Individuals and communities often seek to organize their lives around this reality, to be guided by it in their moral conduct, and to manifest the truths they believe they have discovered. Recent studies in developmental psychology suggest that the religious quest is natural to human beings.

Religious freedom, then, is the right, protected in law, to engage in the religious quest, either alone or in community with others, in private and in public. It begins with an interior right to believe or not. It typically carries the believer into relationships with others of like mind and spirit and, ultimately, into associations that have both private and public dimensions: prayer or worship services, the purchase or sale of property, investment of funds, building houses of worship, training clergy, and inviting others to join the religious community.

Some religious acts, by individuals or communities, represent a public pursuit of religious obligation, or witness of truth claims, in civil society: for example, the establishment of religious hospitals, schools and colleges, homes for the aged, soup kitchens, or immigration services. Some carry religious actors into political discourse and competition, forming religion-based political parties, or making religion-based political arguments for or against laws and policies. Religious freedom is the civil right of both individuals and communities to perform these acts on the basis of full equality under the law.

“Equality under the law,” of course, imposes limits. All religious beliefs and acts in civil and political society are not, per se, equal. Those that are violent or destructive of liberal democratic norms are forbidden or limited by law.

Now to Answering our Big Question

First, note that religious freedom as here defined includes other fundamental freedoms. They are integral elements of religious freedom. In pursuing the religious quest, religious actors exercise freedom of belief or non-belief, expression, assembly, and association. They must enjoy full equality under the law, and freedom from persecution and unjust violence.

But can religious freedom be seen as necessary for the flourishing of the other freedoms within pluralist societies comprised of many religious and non-religious citizens and views? There are good reasons to believe that the answer is yes. Two historical examples will help illuminate those reasons.

First, America’s founding generation identified religious freedom as “the first freedom” because they saw it, in effect, as a precondition for the other freedoms. James Madison wrote that each of us has rights that flow from the duty we owe God. “This duty is precedent, both in order of time and degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe.”

Further, Madison insisted that if men were to fulfill their obligation to God they must have freedom — especially freedom from the coercive powers of the state. “The Duty which we owe our Creator, and the manner of our discharging it, can be governed only by Reason and Conviction, not by Compulsion or Violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the full and free exercise of it according to the dictates of conscience, unpunished and unrestrained by the Magistrate. . . .”

Here, then, in man’s duty to the God who created him, and gave him reason and will, lay man’s natural right to religious freedom. In other words, performing the duty required freedom, or, as Madison put it, the right of “free exercise” of religion. To the founders it was necessary to the operation of the other freedoms. As George Washington expressed the point in his final farewell address: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are the indispensable supports.”

A second example from contemporary history: political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote that the third wave of democratization, which began in the 1970s and extended into the 1990s, was dominated by Catholic nations, and a key element of their transition to democracy was the Church’s embrace — during the Second Vatican Council — of religious liberty for all.

In other words, the Church’s adoption of religious freedom helped trigger a movement toward democracy in Catholic countries, thereby encouraging the emergence, and the merging, of the other freedoms. In effect, Catholic clergy and laity were spurred to make public arguments that weakened the hand of authoritarian governments (many of which had been allied with the Catholic Church), thereby expanding the opportunity for democratic civil society and political movements to emerge. Importantly, the new Catholic articulation of religious liberty supported the expressive and associational freedom and equality of non-Catholics within civil and political society.

It appears that religious freedom may have had a galvanizing effect. In nations like Poland, Spain, Chile, and the Philippines, other freedoms had existed to one degree or another – a relatively free press, some economic freedoms, or limited forms of associational freedom. But until religious liberty became part of an interlocking web of key freedoms, the others seem to have been insufficient to trigger either a transition to democracy or its consolidation.

Why might this be the case? Because any state that protects religious liberty thereby limits itself. Religious liberty empowers religious actors both to perform services that might otherwise be carried out by the state, and to adhere to an authority beyond the state. For this very reason, authoritarian governments might understandably permit some secular assembly and speech, while banning or restricting religious assembly and speech. Such has been a pattern throughout history – from Stalin, Mao and Hitler, to Mexico’s Plutarco Calles and Syria’s Bashar Assad.

By the same token, empirical studies are confirming a strong relationship between religious freedom and the other freedoms that contribute to the longevity of democracy. The work of sociologists Brian Grim and Roger Finke, for example, shows high statistical correlations between religious liberty and the presence of the other fundamental freedoms that ensure the longevity of democracy, including civil and political liberty, freedom of the press, and economic freedom. Religious freedom is also highly associated with overall human development, and the absence of violent religious extremism. As Grim notes, correlation does not prove causation. He concludes however, that “advanced statistical tests suggest that there is indeed a critical independent contribution that religious freedom is making” to the other freedoms.
So Where Does This Leave Us?

To repeat, history and modern scholarship (both theoretical and empirical) provide reasons to believe what common sense would suggest. In order to mature and last, democracies require a bundle of necessary, interlocking freedoms, including religious freedom.

But there appears to be something distinctive about religious freedom, something close to what the American Founders meant when they declared it the “first freedom.” Religion bears on the most fundamental and powerful questions that most human beings feel compelled to answer, such as, “why do I exist and what is my destiny? Given my understanding of transcendent reality, what must I do to live a good life?” The religious questions, in other words, are not instrumental. They arise naturally and address ultimate things, with an inherent power that seems universal and timeless. The religious questions, in short, beckon us all.

It is unsurprising then, that the answers we derive from the religious questions shape thought and compel action, both individually and in association with others. As such, the questions and the answers inevitably bear on the institutions of civil society and the norms of political life.

This is why the growing international deficit in religious freedom is so troubling. It is also why the travail of religious liberty in Europe and the United States is, or ought to be, a reason for deep concern for religious and non-religious citizens. As we have seen, the evidence suggests that democracies will not remain stable unless they protect religious liberty (and the bundle of freedoms to which it is so intimately tied).

But, at the end of the day, the question returns to individual human beings. Religious freedom is the sine qua non of living freely. You may allow me to vote, own property, and associate freely in the public square in every other way. But if you do not permit me to speak and to act on those beliefs about ultimate reality that define who I am and why I am on this earth, then the other freedoms mean little. In a very real sense, then, all human freedoms depend on the freedom of religion.

These are some questions for your consideration in the discussion:

1. How in your view is religious liberty related to other fundamental freedoms? Can the other freedoms operate if religious freedom is unduly restricted or denied?

2. Should religious freedom be seen as primarily a private right, i.e., exercised in ways interior to the person and in houses of worship? Or should religious freedom include the right to engage in public life, both in civil society and in political life?

3. Is religious freedom a “pre political right” or is it created by the state?

4. Should Western democracies, including the United States, attempt to promote international religious freedom? If so, why? If not, why not?

Discussion Summary

As I reflect on this discussion several key themes emerge. The discussants raised a wide spectrum of issues worthy of the Big Question posed in the original essay (i.e., “Is religious freedom necessary for other freedoms to flourish?”). These questions highlighted the depth and breadth of the Big Question itself, which has both theoretical and practical dimensions.

Among the issues raised by discussants were political and sociological questions (how will religious freedom affect the fates of the so-called Arab Spring countries and of China?), theological-philosophical questions (is the modern Catholic understanding of religious freedom really a form of indifferentism? Does Islam have the theological basis to develop a political understanding of religious freedom?), and legal-philosophical questions (in a regime of religious liberty that includes the right of the majority to make political arguments based on religious views — such as the regime described in the original essay — how are minority rights to be protected?).

Here are the Two New Big Questions that I see arising from our discussion.

1. Can religious freedom truly be understood in the 21st century, especially by non-Western societies, as a pre-political right rather than the gift of governments?

This is slightly different than asking whether it is true that religious freedom is a pre-political right. It was in fact held to be so by generations of Western philosophers, theologians, and politicians (e.g., Madison, Jefferson, and Washington). But that truth, if truth it be, is in the West no longer widely understood as such, except perhaps in the narrowest sense. The current generation of American political elites would probably concede freedom of belief and worship as a pre-political right attaching to all human beings by virtue of their existence, but they would no longer universally agree that the public aspects of religious freedom discussed in the original essay (e.g., faith-based entities in civil society, or religious arguments in political life) are part of that fundamental right. Why this is the case is an interesting and very broad subject worthy of its own treatment.

The point I would wish to make here is that non-Western nations have never accepted religious freedom as a pre-political right. Today they tend to see it as a threat, e.g., an example of Western cultural imperialism designed to secure space for Western Christian missionaries and, in Muslim-majority nations, to move Islam to the margins of public life. A resulting dilemma for the American policy of advancing international religious freedom is how to overcome these perceptions, and the widespread resistance to the very idea of religious liberty. It seems to me the United States is unlikely to be persuasive in arguing that religious liberty is a pre-political right in cultures where there is no philosophical or theological basis for accepting such an argument.

Some would respond that there is, or may be, such a basis in certain interpretations of Islam, or in Orthodox nations such as Russia. In either case, however, it seems to me that the prudent course is to emphasize the more practical arguments about the advantages of religious freedom made in the original essay — i.e., that it is necessary if democracy is to last, or if violent religious extremism and terrorism are to be defeated, or if economic freedom and social harmony are to emerge and endure. These practical arguments can act as pathways to deeper reflection. If there are compelling political, economic, social, and intellectual reasons for embracing religious freedom, the philosophers and theologians will take notice. Then we will be in the position to determine whether, as Columbia political theorist Alfred Stepan has long argued, most religions of the world are capable of discovering within their own comprehensive doctrines the basis for liberal self government.

2. Does religious freedom relativize all religions, including false ones?

There is some evidence for the proposition, offered by one of our discussants, that religious freedom as I have described it puts all religions on the same plane, inviting observers to conclude that all are equally true, or that none is truer than the others.

The evidence for this proposition lies in the requirement for equal treatment of all religions in the civil and political spheres. No religion is to be privileged in law over others. All have equal protections within civil society (e.g., in the forming of faith-based hospitals, colleges, soup kitchens and the like). All have equal access to the political processes of the state (e.g, each may make political arguments based on their religious teachings, form political parties based on those teachings, and the like).

This principle of equality in civil and political life has clearly lent support in the West to trends toward religious indifferentism, trends that are grounded in philosophical relativism and materialist scientism. However, religious freedom as I have described it is manifestly not an assertion that all religions are equally true, either morally or theologically. Rather, it rests on the assumption that liberal democracy works best when it avoids monopolies of power among human beings – political, economic, and religious.

In the end, religious freedom does not relativize truth. Rather, it allows human beings to respond to truth as they apprehend it. If, as many believe, there is one God who created and sustains each of us, and one religion that contains the fullest expression of the truths about God and man, then surely human beings can discover this God and that religion. If God exists, and if that religion is true, they beckon us all. And if we are to find them we must have freedom.