Feb 02 2009

Religious Freedom in America

Category: freedom,religionharmonicminer @ 10:46 am

Excerpt from a very useful article on religious freedom in the USA, from Richard Garnett at Public Discourse:

The first approach—“freedom from religion”—accepts religion as a social reality, but regards it primarily as a danger to the common good, and regards it as a practice that should be confined to the private, personal realm. On this view, it is “bad taste”—or worse!—“to bring religion into discussions of public policy.” Under this approach, as Professor Stephen Carter memorably put it, religion is “like building model airplanes, just another hobby: something quiet, something trivial—not really a fit activity for intelligent . . . adults.” Religious belief is protected, but the permissible implications and expressions of those beliefs are limited. The dominant concern is the domestication of religion, and its assimilation to the often-relativistic ideology of the state. The role of law and government is to maintain the boundary between private religion and public life; it is certainly not to support, and only rarely to accommodate, religious practice and formation.

This “freedom from” approach has found some expression in American law and policy, both in the past and—in some instances—today. It is not, however, true to the Constitution, to religious liberty properly understood, or to the nature of the human person, who is hard-wired and by nature drawn to search for truth and to cling to it when it is found. It is a good thing, then, that this approach’s influence seems more pronounced among academics and a few political activists, than among Americans generally.

The second approach—“freedom of religion”—tends to emphasize toleration, neutrality, and equal-treatment. Religion, on this view, is something that matters to many people, and so the law does not permit it to be singled out for special hostility or discrimination. It is recognized and accepted that religious believers and institutions are at work in society, and the stance of the law is even-handedness. Because we are all entitled to express our views and to live in accord with our consciences, religious believers are so entitled, too. The law, it is thought, should be “religion-blind.”

Although this approach is not hostile to religion, it is also reluctant to regard religion as something special. Religious liberty is just “liberty,” and liberty is something to which we all have an “equal” right. Religion is not something to be “singled out,” for accommodations and privileges, or for burdens and disadvantages. Again, religious commitment, expression, and motivation are all, in the end, matters of taste and private preference.

This approach represents an improvement on its “freedom from” competitor, and it, too, has been and is reflected in American law. In fact, it is fair to say that its influence is much more pronounced in the Supreme Court’s recent decisions. The Justices have emphasized, for example, that officials may not treat religiously-motivated speech worse than speech that reflects other viewpoints. Similarly, courts have ruled that public funds may be allocated to religiously affiliated schools and social-welfare agencies—so long as they are providing a secular public good—on the same terms as non-religious ones. At the same time, governments are not required to provide special accommodations for religious believers, or to exempt religiously motivated conduct from the reach of generally applicable laws.

Finally, a third approach: “freedom for religion.” This approach, in my view, represents the American experiment in “healthy secularism” at its best; it is the one that we should be rooting for. Under this approach, the search for religious truth is acknowledged as an important human activity. Religion, as religion, is special; its exercise is seen as valuable and good, and worthy of accommodation, even support. The idea is not, to be clear, that the public authority should demand religious observances or establish religious orthodoxy; it is, instead, that a political community committed to positive secularity can and should still take note of the fact that people long for the transcendent and are, by nature, called to search for the truth, and for God.

The entire article is worth reading. I’m a fan of the “freedom for religion” approach, as is the author of the piece. I also believe it is the only approach consistent with the clear meaning of the words in the Constitution, and the intent of the Founders as revealed by their actions, letters, civil participation in various state governments, etc. If we settle for less than this (and Garnett points out just how fragile our religious liberty is), we are giving up on a central aspect of what makes America what it was, and should continue to be, in contrast to the utter secularization of Europe.

Further, our religious institutions, churches, schools, colleges and universities, service organizations, etc., must be at the forefront of defending that religious liberty. Unfortunately, all too many are engaged in seeking the approval of the very secularism that is hostile to religion in the first place, adopting secular initiatives as if they were central to faith (but for which scriptural support has only recently been discovered, somehow), and pressuring their own constituencies to buy into secular-Left policy-prescriptions as an obligation of the faithful.

Sadly, the very institutions that should be defending our religious liberty are too often complicit in reducing it.

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