Three Reasons Freedom of Religion Matters

Freedom of religion matters. It is unique from other freedoms. It wasn’t chosen ad hoc for inclusion in the Bill of Rights. Freedom of religion is not freedom-of-something-or-other.

I needed to say that when I saw urbanus’s comment today, in response to the statement that at least two people in the UK had lost their jobs for opposing gay marriage,

Okay, but that’s not the issue. If they lost their jobs for discriminating against people who are black, or disabled, or something, who would be crying about “freedom” then? (I wish I could refuse to do my job and not get sacked, on the basis of my freedom-of-something-or-other!)

Let me mention briefly — so we can set it aside and concentrate on the main point — that freedom of religion doesn’t mean always being able to claim one’s faith as a reason not to do one’s job. We need not explore all the ins and outs of that here. What I want to say instead as that freedom of religion differs from other freedoms in at least three fundamental aspects.

1. Dethroning the state

Freedom of religion signifies the state’s recognition that it is not the highest power. That was the point of this freedom’s inception, as I understand American history. Even Benjamin Franklin, noted non-believer, assured the Continental Congress that “God rules in the affairs of men.”

This recognition is basic to all other human liberties. The state is (if I may state the obvious) the highest visible power; and as such, it is subject to all the temptations of power. Governments expand to fill the space available. There are only two effective checks upon their growth and ultimately their intrusion upon all subjects and citizens. The first such check is another competing human power: another state or their own citizenry. The second is the sober awareness that they are not the highest power after all; they answer to another, higher Power.

Totalitarianism tends to run shoulder-to-shoulder with institutionalized unbelief. The twentieth century is rife with examples. Squashing religion serves the authoritarian state’s interest: it’s called “eliminating competition for the throne.” The best defense against this illiberal outcome is freedom of religion.

2. Freedom of conscience

The state has a certain stake in individuals’ consciences: this is part of the point of legislation, which should be both a reflection and a guide for public conscience. So then, for example, to the extent that the state approves gay “marriage,” it is telling its people that men and women of good conscience will approve it as well.

To this, however, there must be a limit. It’s one thing for the state to encourage good conscience with respect to murder, theft, kidnapping, and so on. It’s another thing for the state to enforce (read: to “force”) actions in conflict with long-established matters of conscience like marriage and morality.

It’s important to bear in mind that we’re not talking about mere whims here. We’re not talking about the First Church of Smack, where heroin is embedded in the liturgy. This is not about inventing new “religions” to circumvent laws. This is about individuals’ freedom to live according to beliefs and principles with a heritage going back thousands of years.

3. Religion as conscience to the state

These first two points intersect in religion’s vital role of speaking truth to power.

Religion should not hold temporal power; that’s a relationship that always goes to seed. Religion does its best public policy work by standing in tension with the state, and likewise, the state does its best work in tension with religion. The state needs a contrary voice to keep it in good conscience. Of all possible such voices, religion has the greatest potential to stand in an independent position, not beholden to government, and not dependent on government for its ethics, principles, and values.

The state will not always appreciate a contrary voice. Conscience can be quite a bother to individuals; why not also to the government? And so the state will often be tempted to still that voice by limiting religious expression, mandating that it remain private, dismissing it as “belief,” and otherwise sweeping it aside. To allow the state to succeed in that, however, would be to promote the state’s governing with a seared conscience. It would be disastrous to more freedoms than just religion.

Religious freedom among other freedoms

Other freedoms work hand-in-hand with religious liberty, including freedom of speech, assembly, voting, and others. These all work together together to help ensure limits on the state’s power. Still there is no other liberty, no freedom-of-something-or-other, that can accomplish the same public good that freedom of religion can.

Thus if current trends continue, and the state mandates that individuals cooperate with gay “marriage” against their religious beliefs, the state will be harming more than just those who are directly affected. It will be encroaching on the very institutions and principles that help ensure liberty for all.

Therefore to the extent that gay-rights advocates look to the state to force “freedoms” down other persons’ throats, they’re undermining liberty in general. In the end this will prove counterproductive even to their own cause.

Religious freedom is unique.There is nothing else like it to limit the state’s bent toward authoritarianism. For the good of all the people — unbelievers included — it must stand.