Justifying Religious Freedom: Three Observations

I’ve been mulling over Steve’s very thoughtful posts (here and here) on the need to find persuasive justifications for religious freedom in America today. Although the Constitution expressly singles out religious freedom for protection, a new movement in the academy denies that religion merits such protection. The theological notions that support religious freedom do not have a place in contemporary liberal politics, the argument goes; religious freedom is thus a kind of anachronism. Although Steve doesn’t agree, he suggests that those of us who value religious freedom develop new, secular justifications to respond to this movement, and he offers one such justification, a “social contract” argument that I find very persuasive, as a start.

Steve, Marc, and others who have commented here and on other sites know more about this than I, and I hesitate a bit to offer my own thoughts. But I do co-host this website, so here are three observations: one optimistic, one (I hope) constructive, and one pessimistic.

First, notwithstanding the fact that some very serious scholars, and the Obama Justice Department, have argued that religious freedom no longer merits special protection, I doubt the American public shares that view. There’s going to be a fight, no question, and we may as well be ready. But the idea that religious freedom has special importance, and merits special protection, is deeply rooted in America’s self-image. (In recent surveys, large majorities even of secular Americans agree that religion has had a good influence on American life). As Steve says, the  commitment to religious freedom is part of our social contract and I don’t think it’s going to fade away. If p0liticians try to make the “religious freedom is an anachronism” argument, I suspect they will fail. When the Obama Adminstration argued in Hosanna-Tabor that religious freedom deserved no special protection, the Court unanimously disagreed.

Second, if one were looking for a secular justification for religious freedom, it seems to me that providing a check on state power is a pretty good one. Pluralism is the best guarantor of political freedom, and pluralism requires that the state have competitors. In Western history, nothing has proved a stronger competitor for the state than religion and, specifically, Christianity. Because of its unique capacity to encourage commitment, religion has provided a counterweight to state power since – well, since the late Roman Empire. Even people of no faith — in fact, even people who are hostile to religious belief as such — should be able to see this benefit of religion.

My third observation is the pessimistic one. This summer, I’ve been reading Ross Douthat’s great new book, Bad Religion, on the state of American Christianity. I’ll be writing more about Douthat’s book shortly, but, briefly, he argues that the consensus, “mere Christianity” that traditionally provided the vocabulary for public debate in America has all but disappeared. Propositions that until recently would have been seen as just “common sense” are easily dismissed today, by more and more people, as “sectarian.” As I say, I don’t think that most Americans view religious freedom as “sectarian,” and I don’t think they will anytime soon. But I’ll admit that Douthat’s book has made me a little more doubtful about this.