“Is Religious Freedom Necessary for Other Freedoms to Flourish?”
By Thomas F. Farr
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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.