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The State Of Our Religious Liberty Is Confusing

We no longer are clear that the free exercise of religion is freedom for religion—and not merely freedom of private conscience.

When it comes to religion especially, the condition of our liberty today is confusing. Nobody is against the separation of church and state, and everyone seems to agree that the sacred property each of us has in a free conscience is especially deserving of protection from government and other forms of oppression. Freedom of religion is also good for political life, insofar as political action can be limited to matters that don’t require the controversial shaping of souls or intrusions into the realm of conscience. But freedom of religion, Alexis de Tocqueville explained, is especially good for religion, insofar as the churches can sustain their independence as bodies of thought and action resisting the skeptical, materialistic, and even freedom-denying or passively fatalistic excesses of democracy.

Religion, Tocqueville reminds us, is actually a limit on the freedom of the isolated, self-obsessed individual. But accepting certain first principles dogmatically, we get over our puny selves enough to have the confidence to act in common in both political and economic life. Complete political freedom and complete religious freedom are unsustainable at the same time. So it’s through religion that Americans had a sense of common morality and common duties, and it’s through religion that Americans were confident of the equality of all unique and irreplaceable creatures under God, just as it’s through religion that Americans believed that universal education was more than techno-vocational, because each of us are more than a merely productive being with interests.

Some Americans today celebrate the freeing of the individual from the dogmatic constraints of religious morality, and personal lives—even spiritual lives—from the constraints of the churches. Certainly we can no longer say that Americans are bound by a common religious morality when it comes, say, to the marriage and the family. Our Court has led the way in affirming of “relational autonomy” or the individual’s decision of how to construct his or her free personal identity. A nation that’s recently become very pro-choice when it comes to contraception, divorce, sodomy, abortion, and same-sex marriage is certainly one that has won a new birth of freedom from religion in public life.

We no longer are clear that the free exercise of religion is freedom for religion—and not merely freedom of private conscience.

More and more Americans—although still a fairly small minority—agree with our “new atheists” that “religion spoils everything,” that almost all of the repressive pathologies that have distorted the world can be traced to religious authority. A great number of Americans have proudly moved from the conformism of organized religion into an allegedly more spiritual or privatized realm of personalized belief, which skeptics call the “religion of me,” just as some have moved away from personal religion altogether in the direction of pantheism and kinds of Buddhism. We can say that Americans are freer than ever of the intrusive influence of churches as organized bodies of thought and action. In that respect, we’re less Puritanical than ever.

But observant religious believers—those who actually deeply identify with churches (and synagogues) as sources of personal and relational authority—say there’s actually less religious freedom than ever. There’s less respect for the teaching authority of the church as a source of moral guidance needed especially by democracy, as a form of guidance that is one limit on the authority of government and the market. We no longer are clear that the free exercise of religion is freedom for religion—and not merely freedom of private conscience. So the ObamaCare contraceptive mandate intrudes on the freedom of the church to be an authoritative body for believers. Not only that, the emerging consensus that a church’s opinions on abortion, marriage and all that are to be dismissed as unreasonable and, as contrary to the prevailing view of human rights, no different from those of racists and other kinds of despotic rural idiots. So the display of liberty that is genuine religious diversity is now an offense against “diversity” in the corporate-bureaucratic sense.

To focus only on the Catholics for a moment, some now say that present American trends show that our Lockean/founding idea of liberty as its unfolded over history has always been deeply hostile to the freedom of church as church, and so genuinely faithful Catholics have to oppose themselves to the civilizational wrecking ball that is the American idea of liberty. The situation of Catholics in America is becoming more and more like the situation of the dissidents under communism; persecution for one’s faith is just around the corner. These Catholics—such as Alasdair MacIntyre and Patrick Deneen—now favor a political order that’s more directly concerned with privileging virtue over liberty or directing liberty with virtue. They add that the position of the church in America is so weak, in part, because so many Catholics have compromised their faith by being seduced by the proposition that being a good Catholic can be compatible with being a good American or the free individual Locke describes.

The way to deal with the contraceptive mandate is to get government as far as possible out of the insurance business, and the institutional churches, in general, should become less dependent on government funding and regulation.

There are serious Catholics and lots of American Christians who are more about reaffirming the American of liberty for their own purposes. They’re explicitly about using Lockean or libertarian means for nonlibertarian ends. The compromise with America they reject is our churches combining their charitable functions with the welfare state without understanding how the progressivist imperatives of big government could undermine their singular evangelical and charitable missions.

The way to deal with the contraceptive mandate is to get government as far as possible out of the insurance business, and the institutional churches, in general, should become less dependent on government funding and regulation. Political activity should largely be about protecting and expanding space for religious institutions, home schooling, and genuinely countercultural or religious ways of life.

Libertarian means for nonlibertarian ends is another way of saying that our economic and political liberty can only be affirmed as good for those who deploy their liberty in the service of purposeful, relational lives. Every human being, in truth, is a free economic actor with undeniable interests, but also citizen, a parent and/or child, and a creature of God. Liberty from government is not just for unencumbered, isolated individuals, but for relational purposes that rank higher than our civic ones.

Robert Kraynak reminds us that even our secular thinkers often acknowledge that it’s through Christianity that we’ve learned to affirm the dignity of all our fellow persons under God. And certainly it’s the virtues inspired by Christianity, such as charity and generosity, that contribute much to transforming our meritocracy based on productivity into a more complete meritocracy that combines freedom with the responsibility that ennobles as any privileged class. We can actually see religion—meaning mainly organized religion—returning to some extent to the lives of our meritocratic elite. A Darwinian would say their natural social instincts are turning them to the church for the same reason as they are leading them to more stable, child-focused marriages.

Meanwhile, we see that members of lower middle class and lower are actually become de-churched, for roughly the same reasons their families are becoming unsustainable. Right now we have the sad paradox that those Americans who most obviously need the assistance of charitable churches are losing it, just as we observe that those who are returning to our churches are also detaching themselves from their fellow fallen creatures who also falling or failing in their economic and relational lives. We can hope our churches will do more for sophisticated Americans in chastening the rights of liberty with the charitable (but not really political) duties of equality. That’s what the freedom of relational creatures is largely for, after all.

Peter Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He teaches courses in political philosophy and American politics.

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