Posted on Nov 30, 2012 by Tom Gilson
Religious liberty is under attack, not only from Federal mandates to violate doctrine and conscience, but also from a more intentional philosophical perspective. Ryan Anderson of editor of Public Discourse, recently reviewed Brian Leiter’s Why Tolerate Religion? I do not expect to have time to read Leiter’s book, though I suppose I may have to eventually; it’s an important question he raises and it needs a sustained thoughtful response.
I think even without reading the book there is something to be added to Anderson’s answer. He described Leiter’s key statement of the problem thus:
He explores this question because he’s puzzled by it. As he sees things, “no one has been able to articulate a credible principled argument for tolerating religion qua religion … why, as a matter of moral principle, we ought to accord special legal and moral treatment to religious practices” (emphases throughout are original). He argues that there is no reason that religion should be protected above and beyond any claim of conscience. Indeed, the book’s dust jacket synopsis perfectly captures his view: “Western democracies are wrong to single out religious liberty for special legal protections.” A bold conclusion. Here’s how he gets there.
Leiter asks “what is distinctive about religion such that religion ought to be tolerated.”
First of all I recommend you read Anderson’s answer to that question. Then I suggest you consider the role that religion has played in the progress of liberal democracy.
The relationship between church and state has always been an uneasy one; or when the two have become too cozy with one another, the effects have been less than salutary.* The two are in competition in many ways. The state asks for allegiance; God asks for allegiance. The state has its rules and laws and expectations; God has his. God claims all power and authority; the state has a tendency to do the same. And where is the check on that tendency?
Historically the answer to that question has been that the state answers to a higher power. Religion’s best role in relation to the state is commonly described as “speaking truth to power.” In 390 AD the Emperor Theodosius impulsively ordered a bloody massacre in Thessalonica. Bishop Ambrose of Milan rebuked him, and the Emperor both repented in tears and with a liberalizing change to regulations concerning the death penalty. King John signed the Magna Carta, one of history’s great documents of freedom, in submission to God and to the Church.
Awareness of higher moral standards is not limited to Christian influence; it operated in Confucian China, for example, if I understand correctly; but it has served best where kings, presidents, and prime ministers have considered themselves answerable to the God of the Bible.
By way of contrast, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and others of their ilk threw off all restraint, making the state the ultimate in terms of both power and “truth.” The results speak for themselves.
If Lord Acton was right about power and corruption, then the state requires a check upon it, a conscience speaking to it. Again, this could never be anything but an uneasy relationship; that’s the way it is when one says “we can and should do this” and another says, “you can do it but you shouldn’t.” So be it: whether the relationship feels good or not, it is essential to liberty.
America’s founders were well aware of human corruptibility, and wrote our Constitution to provide multiple checks on governmental power for that reason. Keeping religion out of the hands of government was one of their many moves of genius.
Christianity can speak truth to power, with or without Constitutional freedoms, but a state that welcomes that word of truth, and which encourages the population in discovering and developing it, is a healthier state than one that limits it. Thus religious freedom is good for human liberty. Even though the church’s relationship to the state cannot be a comfortable one, religion is a force for freedom—even for unbelievers like Brian Leiter.
*I see Islam as a special case here, for it is more than a religion. It includes within it, essentially, a direct connection to state. There is Islam as religion and Islam as state, and the two are inseparable, by Islamic doctrine. I do not think we as a nation have thought through how our First Amendment applies to a religion that is also a competing governing force. We have work to do on that.