The Contradiction of Religious Freedom

Perhaps one of the most cherished freedoms of liberal democracy (in the sense of classical liberalism, not modern progressivism) is the freedom of religion. Much though I admire many elements of Western Civilization prior to the modern era, I cannot help thinking that the end of the formal confessional state has generally been a good thing not only for the state, but even more so for the Church. It has given the Church, no longer tied down by the need to support explicitly Catholic regimes, the freedom to speak more openly and forcefully on the demands that Christ’s message puts upon us in the public and economic realms.

That said, it seems to me that there is a built in contradiction in the place of religious freedom in classical liberalism: While religious freedom is a central element of classical liberalism, the ability of a state to function as a liberal democracy will collapse if a large majority of the population do not share a common basic moral and philosophical (and thus by implication theological) worldview. Thus, while religious freedom is a foundational element of classical liberalism, only a certain degree of religious conformity makes it possible.

Why do I argue this? If there is a basic agreement throughout society about what is right, what is wrong, what constitutes the common good, under what conditions people are meant to live, etc., then it is possible for the institutions of a liberal democracy to be used to allow people to sort out how to achieve these ends. Disagreements may be passionate, as people will not agree on the pragmatic questions of how it is best to run a country. But compromise will at least be possible, and the democracy is likely to survive.

If, however, there is fundamental disagreement among the populace about basic issues of right and wrong and what the purpose of the human person is, the victory of the other side will increasingly look to the defeated like an unacceptable tyranny, and the state will risk coming apart at the seams.

30 Responses to The Contradiction of Religious Freedom

  • If, however, there is fundamental disagreement among the populace about basic issues of right and wrong and what the purpose of the human person is, the victory of the other side will increasingly look to the defeated like an unacceptable tyranny, and the state will risk coming apart at the seams.

    I think this an interesting point. As people’s views change as permitted in an environment of religious liberty, it’s possible that they will diverge to the extent that the commitment to religious liberty and other unifying ideals will erode. Hobbes, for instance, thought this threat was an excellent reason for the state to abolish religious freedom altogether. In this scenario, religion would be yet another tool of good governance.

    Another possibility, of course, is that views will diverge to the extent that there are competing views of what religious freedom should mean and how it should be embodied in law, but that the underlying commitment to religious freedom will remain intact. I would say in broad terms that this is where we are today, and actually also where we were at the time of the Founding. There have been developments since then, of course (most notably the dramatic expansion of the state, which creates many more potential areas for conflict), but I think this tension will probably appear in any pluralistic democracy.

  • this tension will probably appear in any pluralistic democracy.

    Agreed. Which leads to the question, can a pluralistic democracy survive itself? Or is the non-confessional state doomed to eventually fracture in the face of worldviews within the citizenry which overly diverge?

  • Which leads to the question, can a pluralistic democracy survive itself? Or is the non-confessional state doomed to eventually fracture in the face of worldviews within the citizenry which overly diverge?

    I would answer in the affirmative. However, I think it essentially applies to confessional states too. it’s not like being a confessional state automatically excludes critical differences. In fact, if we look at the Protestant rebellion (“Reformation”) you can see how the idea of a confessional state actually facilitated such factors. No state has ever lasted forever in form or appearance and I don’t expect it to ever happen.

  • Interesting commentary. One would think that the post-modern cult of relativism, which is on the rise in western society, would even further complicate things. No longer is the issue simply what is right and what is wrong, but whether or not right or wrong even exist objectively.

  • No inherent contradiction is presented if “freedom” is rightly understood. Freedom does not correspond with the absolute individual authority to will as one pleases. “Certain currents of modern thought have gone so far as to exalt freedom to such an extent that it becomes an absolute, which would then be the source of values” (Par. 3, VERITATIS SPLENDOR, 1993). The very basis for “religious freedom” is grounded in the protection of conscience, thereby preserving the integrity and dignity of the human person, i.e., his very nature (see, e.g., Par. 2, DIGNITATIS HUMANAE, 1965). Freedom, in this sense, might be better understood in terms of freedom from coercion, a type of negative right. Consequently, we lawyers sometimes refer to such negative rights and the rules for preserving such rights as “prophylactic” remedies, something to protect against an evil. It would be improper to invoke “religious freedom” as a means to usurp the very good it is intended to achieve in the first place. Therefore, it would not be the legitimate exercise of freedom to achieve some of the results suggested, e.g., to modify the meaning of the human person is such manner as to remove the protection afforded in the first place – that of sanctity of conscience. Such an exercise of will would be an abuse of freedom, and not the legitimate use of freedom. Do such abuses occur in American politics? Yes, but I would argue it is grounded in an erroneous understanding of “freedom.”

  • Jon, I agree with your central point (the proper meaning of freedom), but the problem remains, in that the meaning of freedom as it is used in the First Amendment is not self-evidently the proper one. In fact, it seems likely that it is rather the *improper* one.

  • I think the extent of the requisite religious conformity is the sticking point. I do not think that people need to have the same religion, nor does it need to be eastern or western, but simply that they be in some sense a spiritual people, i.e. concerned with spiritual things. Morality is more or less the same in all religions.

    I think our problem is that we are not a moral or a spiritual people. We are hedonist, apathetic and lazy. I don’t think the problem is necessarily with liberal democracy (except for how it may have facilitated this growth). The problem is that no society, however organized, can survive a people so devoid of a sense of purpose, morality and passion.

  • Chris, perhaps there are some contemporaries who argue the “improper” grounding of freedom based on the omission of certain language; however, I believe an honest examination of the historical context and the debate surrounding the inclusion of the Bill Rights (incl. 1st Amd) bear out that the understanding of the founders regarding “religious freedom” is at least the one grounded in natural law principles, e.g., as expressed in the Decl. of Indep. (Archbishop Chaput advances a similar position in his “Render unto Ceasar.”)

    A basic principle of legal interpretation involves, among other things, appealing to the records of debate that resulted in the enacted language along with attendant circumstances. How could the formation document (Constitution) of the federation be interpreted apart from the dissolution document (Decl. of Indep)? I submit that it can’t, at least honestly.

  • I think Zach makes a good point that the issue is in part “how pluralistic”. It’s tempting to argue that the US used to have a much more united vision of morality, the human person, and the state — though clearly slavery was a recognized problem from the beginning, which did indeed cause the country to break apart. But I think that some degree of diversity is certainly sustainable, so long as there is agreement on a sufficient number of base principles. I think you could certainly have a stable state with a mix of Protestants and Catholics and non-Christians and non-believers — so long as (whether out of habit or shared philosophy) the vast majority had sufficient agreement about basic moral and philosophical standards.

    I’d have to think about it more, but what I think I’d want to argue is that liberal democracy is generally the best (or least bad, if one wants to be Churchillian) form of government, but that in order to have any sort of stable state it’s necessary for the state to be of such a size and composition that there is already sufficient agreement for people to agree to be governed by the same laws. The problem is, of course, that societies change over time, and so a region which was at one point united can splinter over time. I’m not sure, however, that there’s much that the state itself can do to prevent this kind of splintering from happening — that’s the job of the wider culture, and an example of how the apparatus of the state is (or certainly should be, at any rate) subordinate to the culture, not the other way around.

  • Jon, I agree that the Constitution needs to be read with the Declaration in mind, but I don’t think it matters: I number myself among those who see the Founders as heirs of the Enlightenment more than as heirs of a robust Christian tradition with a strong natural law component. And as such, I think their conception of freedom is not as intrinsically ordered towards the good as is ours, but — as primarily a negative sense — tends towards an understanding of freedom as license. I see today’s emphasis on “choice” (whether it’s the NRA or Planned Parenthood) as in keeping with the underlying philosophy of our founding, not in opposition to it.

  • DC, I agree with your points in both ‘graphs… some diversity is sustainable, and societal cohesion can really only be maintained by the culture itself… the state seems powerless to do so while remaining a democracy.

  • Chris, I’m not sure the Founders’ view of liberty as “license” applies as strongly in the context of religious liberty, as it does for perhaps other liberties or rights (“license” in its ordinary sense of being free from all constraint). For example, I don’t believe the Founders’ would protect the right to practice a religion involving human sacrifice.

    Even if the Founders’ formulation of the “good” was hampered by their ideological perspective, given than the right of “religious liberty” is not absolute (as noted above), I’ll restate my thesis: that their approach vis-a-vis religious liberty would at a minimum fall short of redefining the human person so as to extinguish those very same rights. Note that I’m addressing the narrow case of religious liberty here as it corresponds to the original post.

    As I discussed above, negative rights under the law function as prophylactics, and I believe it achieves its purpose here. That freedom when improperly understood may foster a propensity to license is, as noted by other commentators, a cultural problem, and the gov’t is ill equipped to promote true virtue in a plural society, as recognized even by St. Augustine in his time, so I won’t conflate that issue in this discussion.

  • “It has given the Church, no longer tied down by the need to support explicitly Catholic regimes, the freedom to speak more openly and forcefully on the demands that Christ’s message puts upon us in the public and economic realms.”

    I’ve said something similar in the past, but now I question this. First, this kind of comment risks treating freedom as coming from the state or the social structure rather than the Gospel.

    Second, the Church hierarchy is now perhaps just as committed to defending non-confessional regimes and the liberal democratic order.

    Third, the Church hierarchy doesn’t seem very outspoken in an age of democratic freedoms. Except for the pro-life issue, the Church at present seems mostly incapable of leading. Her shepherds fear alienating the laity, the mainstream media, and the political parties.

    However, the general topic of the original post is sound.

    Boiled down, someone with political authority has to define “religion” and “freedom,” and in our state those definitions will be skewed and/or severely contested.

    I’ve long pondered Federalist 2′s comments about how Providence “has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people–a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion…”

    That “same religion” line probably meant Protestant Christianity, not the “Judeo-Christian” compromise preached in the US decades ago, and certainly not the diversity-celebrating ethos of contemporary elitism.

    When the composition of the people has changed, how can the constitution of the government (its best parts at least) remain unchanged?

  • Assuming you’re correct, perhaps the increase of pluralism in our society and around the globe will give rise to rethinking of the state itself. I wonder which of the two, in time, will prove the stronger. Will our pluralism fundamentally restructure our society or will the structure of the state put a halt to our pluralism? Or will we not reach that point, but remain in permanent tension?

  • In the piece you state that “the ability of a state to function as a liberal democracy will collapse if a large majority of the population do not share a common basic moral and philosophical (and thus by implication theological) worldview…” as though this idea is axiomatic. It is anything but axiomatic. Morality does not, as you suggest, derive from religion. Consider the recently exposed attempts, now well-documented, by the Catholic church to conceal the rampant sexual exploitation of children by its clergy. Insofar as the sexual exploitation of children might be considered as perhaps the one area in which moral condemnation might be considered as both universal and absolute among religious and non-religious alike, I think we can safely conclude that morality is separate from religion and can not be derived from it. Moreover, insofar as religion (in this case the Catholic church) has shown itself to be uniquely delinquent on this issue, we can further conclude that the Catholic church, if not necessarily religion generally, is not only amoral, but immoral. QED

  • Morality of course derives from religion as a historical fact. Without a religious sanction you do not have a binding morality but mere opinion about morality. As for people who are religious engaging in sin, that will only shock people who mistake men for angels. If men were sinless there would be no need for the ten commandments and other religion based codes of morality. That men violate such codes says nothing about the validity of the codes and everything about the capacity of humans to commit evil. As for your attempt to claim that sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy is “uniquely delinquent”, I assume you said that with tongue in cheek. Grave crimes against children are committed by adults in every calling known to man. Judging from media accounts, public school teachers seem to be especially culpable in this area.

  • @ D. McClarey – Respectfully, your statement that “[m]orality of course derives from religion as a historical fact” is merely a conclusory restatement of the original proposition and is patently absurd on its face for the same reasons I’ve stated. Of course, the is no “of course” about it…and that is my point. As for my characterization of the Catholic church’s response to the the sex abuse scandal as “uniquely delinquent”, I do not mean to say that no other entity as ever committed a similar offense against morality as that too would be absurd. I do, however, think that the Catholic church’s response has been and is “uniquely delinquent” as to the degree to which they permitted, and then by failing to adequately address the issue enabled, the abuse. By ignoring the problem and reassigning offending priests to other parishes rather than turning those priests over to authorities for prosecution or at least ensuring that those priests would be assigned to duties that would avoid contact with children transformed what were the individual transgressions of a few into a systemic transgression. Hence, by any measure, the Catholic church committed immoral acts or what you would no doubt term, “sins”. The church must accept responsibility for its actions and, by so doing, acknowledge that it has no direct moral authority. If it has any moral authority at all it is, at best, derivative. If moral authority is, arguendo, vested derivatively in the church then it is only one of many sources of such authority and therefore is subject to your criticism that such authority is subjective and relative.

  • Karl,

    You don’t even have to accept that religiously derived moral norms are correct to see the truth of my statement (though your illogic that follows is pretty impressive, and all the more ironic by your summing up with the scholastic QED.)

    If a society is made up of multiple factions with radically differing ideas of what is right and wrong, and each group tries (as is natural) to enforce their notions of right and wrong through the mechanism of the law, strife will inevitably result.

    We saw this in our own history with the issue of slavery. One section of the country believed that slavery was a profound moral evil — another believed it was natural and perhaps even beneficial to the enslaved. Prohibitionists saw it as evil not to outlaw slavery, slavery supporters saw it as an unacceptable abbridgement of their freedom to hold private property.

    The result was the bloodiest war in our history. For my point to hold, it’s not even necessary to rule on which side was right, or if there even is such a thing as right and wrong. So long as the two groups believed that there was such a thing as right and wrong, and had different beliefs about it, strife was the inevitable result.

  • Hence, by any measure, the Catholic church committed immoral acts or what you would no doubt term, “sins”. The church must accept responsibility for its actions and, by so doing, acknowledge that it has no direct moral authority. If it has any moral authority at all it is, at best, derivative.

    Huh?

    If it turns out that a drug enforcement unit has been trafficing in drugs illegally, does that mean that there are in fact no laws against narcotics? No.

    If you think that Catholics believe that things are right or wrong only to the extent that the Church practices morality, that the Church is the source of morality by examplar, that would at least explain your confusion. But otherwise this line of argument simply makes no sense.

    The Church claims that it has correctly relayed through its teachings the moral laws (both revealed and natural) which God created humanity to live in conformity to. Whether individual Catholics or even large groups of Catholics successfully live according to those laws would seem to have no relation to whether those laws are indeed true.

    The sins of priests and bishops are no more a disproof of Catholic theology than a physicist having a car accident is a disproof of the laws of motion. Failure to conform to a law does not disprove its existence.

  • No, my statement that all morality derives from religion is historical fact is not conclusory but simply a statement of fact. The morality of all civilizations derives from religious teaching. You can deny this, but it places you squarely in the category of people who deny that fire burns and water is wet. Your idea that sins committed by clerics deprives the Church of moral authority is risible. The moral authority of the Church comes from God. That authority remains if every pope going back to Peter were a vile fiend. The sinful clerics are condemned by the teachings of the Church that they failed to follow. Their sins no more undermined the authority of the Church than Peter’s denial of Christ before the crucifixion or the betrayal of Christ by Judas undermined the authority of the Church. 2000 years of sins and human folly have not undermined that authority.

  • @ DarwinCatholic – “If a society is made up of multiple factions with radically differing ideas of what is right and wrong, and each group tries (as is natural) to enforce their notions of right and wrong through the mechanism of the law, strife will inevitably result.”

    Naturally. Strife is the essence of democracy, and our laws are the product of compromise and adaptation which seeks a balance between individual freedom and the order that must prevail in a society in order to maximize the individual freedom of all.

    “Failure to conform to a law does not disprove its existence.”

    True, but the church failed to enforce the law within its own ranks, holding itself above the law. Do you not see the contradiction that impends here?

  • @ McClarrey -

    “No, my statement that all morality derives from religion is historical fact is not conclusory but simply a statement of fact.”

    This sir, is a conclusory statement. If the things explained as the numerator and the things needed to be assumed in order for the statement to be true as the denominator results in a value < 1, you have made a conclusory statement. If you're at all confused about this, you might want to consult a Jesuit (or a rabbi).

  • No it is a statement of historical fact. All civilizations have based their morality on religious teaching. Once again, you can deny this, but you are simply wrong as a factual matter.

  • Karl,

    I agree that discussion and compromise between opposing view points is the essence of democracy — however I think it’s pretty self evidence that the disagreements one can successfully compromise between have to be within a certain minimum range in order for the process to work. If disagreements are too extreme, the basis for democracy breaks down because any possible compromise will be seen as utterly unacceptable by some portion of the population.

    Imagine that 40% of our population demanded the right to stone women who got pregnant out of wedlock. Meanwhile, 55% believes this would be murder. Some 5% is for some reason able to hold themselves above teh debate.

    If the 40% is truly set on enforcing their beliefs about stoning, indeed believes it will destroy their way of life and make life not worth living if they’re not allowed to stone women who get pregnant out of wedlock, what you’re going to have is a breakdown in civil order and a lot of violence. There’s simply not a way to address that kind of disagreement via the sort of compromise and give-and-take which we use to settle disputes like whether we should subsidize corn production, or whether we should have government health care.

    That’s what I’m talking about here.

    True, but the church failed to enforce the law within its own ranks, holding itself above the law. Do you not see the contradiction that impends here?

    Um, no.

    You’re consistently missing two key points:

    1) The Church does not claim that it sets morality arbitrarily the way that a legislature passes regulations. Rather, it claims to have received from God and passed on to humanity a set of immutable laws formed by God. This isn’t a common law situation where one can claim that failure to enforce is a ceding of control.

    2) You’re also not clearly accounting for what happened here. If the Church had been going around preaching, “Bugging little boys is absolutely wrong. However, if a priest does it, it should not be treated as a crime and he should be allowed to continue,” you would at least have a point that Church teaching was incoherant. Rather, you had the Church clearing teaching that something was wrong, but in some dioceses the bishops were ignoring claims that some of their priests were committing acts which were both crimes and grave sins. It is, unfortunately, all too common that those who are in some form of authority misuse it to their advantage. For instance, I know several police officers who completely ignore speed limits in their personal driving, and then routinely get off when pulled over by flashing their badges. Nonetheless, the fact that cops rarely write other cops tickets does not mean that the speed limits don’t exist. It just means that people in authority often abuse it.

    Indeed, in the case of the scandals, one might actually take the opposite lesson: the fact that a coverup occurred underlines that the Church is correct in stating that the moral law against molestation is a “natural law”, one written in the hearts of man and understandable even without revelation.

  • I think Mr. Wulff is obviously confused about a number of things, but I am not sure you’re quite right, Donald, that all civilizations have based their morality on religious teaching. I’m trying to remember where I encountered the argument (C.S. Lewis, I think), but there are writers who believe that one of the crowning achievements of Judaism and Christianity is the integration of morality and the experience of the numinous.

    To cite one example, the gods of Ancient Greece or Rome were hardly moral exemplars, and the philosophers rather than the priests devoted themselves to exploring moral philosophy. Of course, I think in the end, that explorations of morality and experiences of the numinous eventually have to cross paths, but I’m not sure that’s always how it’s worked historically.

  • All civilizations John Henry base their morality on religious teaching. In regard to the Greeks for example I refer you to Hesiod’s Works and Days from circa 700 BC:

    “Muses of Pieria who give glory through song, come hither, tell of Zeus your father and chant his praise. Through him mortal men are famed or un-famed, sung or unsung alike, as great Zeus wills. For easily he makes strong, and easily he brings the strong man low; easily he humbles the proud and raises the obscure, and easily he straightens the crooked and blasts the proud, — Zeus who thunders aloft and has his dwelling most high.”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theogony

    Hesiod put into writing the religious traditions of the Greeks that attributed all morality as a gift from the Gods. It is certainly true that later philosophers were troubled by Gods in some of the Greek fables who acted in an immoral fashion, but that did not negate the Greek belief that the Gods had granted to man morality, and that the Gods punished mortals who failed to observe the laws of morality.

  • Religious freedom is inherent in revealed religion, especially the Catholic faith. God reveals and we respond. How we respond is what defines our life. All morality is religious – it can’t be anything else. A philosophical morality is devoid of the transcendent and will collapse because it becomes a human construct and this world is passing away.

    Sure, humans can discern the natural law; but, what inspires that desire? The natural human inclination is to dominate and destroy. Rare is the man who searched for truth before Truth entered space-time. Look at Confucius (Kung Fu Tze), Aristotle or Lao Tzu, they were on to something but like all human efforts it cannot be fulfilled.

    The state’s responsibility is to act negatively, as lucidly pointed out above. Government is not supposed to provide health care, housing, sex-change operations or even food. Government, properly designed, is to curtail the will to power of any group, faction or individual including the state itself. This effort will ultimately always fail because we cannot be perfected in this world.

    Religious freedom is the fundamental freedom – all others, including the right to life are based on the free choice of humans to respond to God. The real question isn’t should the state protect religious freedom – that is self-evident, it must. The real question is what is religion? Without the answer to what religion is, then we cannot expect the state to protect our free choice as regards ‘religion’.

    Religion, properly defined, is the justice we owe to God. Only the Catholic faith has a claim to the fullness of truth. Of course, as Catholics we are free to obey God or rebel. We just must be aware that there are consequences. Those consequences are ours to chose and not for the state to determine. Yet the state must provide the environment of choice, which requires adherence to the truth. Our freedom is not license it is the freedom from coercion save when we seek to coerce another. We are free to do what we ought, not what we want.

    The ultimate penalty for abuse of the freedom of religion is imprisonment for eternity – a dark self-imposed isolation. The good news is Jesus came to set the captives free.

    America has her Masonic/Jacobin/Enlightenment stain and a rich, vibrant Christian tradition. Does she need to be Catholic? No. But America must be Christian. She has to be Christian to be America even if no Christians live here. No other religion, no other philosophy or ethos can promote authentic human freedom.

    Our free, Christian nation has her best days ahead of her, we just have to overcome this relativist chaos right now and then again and again and again until we ultimately fail – and then we win.

    Our Lady of America, ora pro nobis.

  • Gentlemen,

    Thank you for an enjoyable debate. I think the comments and the tone have been respectful and important, valid points raised on all sides. This experience has reaffirmed my faith that people of different points of view, even on those subjects held most dear, can be exchanged in a civil, respectful manner.

    Be well.

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