The debate over religious freedom is often misunderstood in liberal democracies as about what role the state should or should not afford religion; where religion may be afforded a safe, usually private, expression. And while this logic appeals to our sentiments of public order, it also seriously ruptures the liberal premise that government is inherently limited. Such logic can make the state not only the guarantor and defender, but also the source of fundamental human rights. Such logic yields a state that is anything but limited.
It also makes for an extremely confusing conversation on religious freedom, because religious freedom can be both an internal liberal debate, impossible to separate from the many, now increasingly globally contested, premises of liberalism, as well as a fundamental challenge to those same premises. The religious freedom fearful can therefore get somewhat justifiably panicked by confusing the internal liberal argument for religious freedom with the theocratic logic of the illiberal. Both talk about religious freedom. Both mean something very different. It is a conversation ruled by a great deal of confusion.
Into that gap steps Cardus Senior Fellow Stanley Carlson-Thies, and The Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance. Last week he wrote a reflection on “Religious Freedom and Social Architecture” worth reading in full:
Often religious freedom, including the freedom of faith-based service organizations, is treated as a matter of a limitation on what government may do: it should not pass laws that require religious organizations or persons to violate what their religion persuades them to do or not do—and if a law would require such a violation, then it should include an exemption. That’s a good starting point (although to be accurate the statement has to include the legitimate limits on the freedom).
And yet to think of religious freedom as a limitation on specific laws is impoverished. There is a broader setting: the architecture of society, and specifically whether or not the services, taxes, and rulemaking of government leave sufficient space to civil society so that religious and other organizations have an opportunity to flourish.
After all, a major part of the “free exercise” of religion takes place via non-governmental organizations—not only houses of worship but also schools, health clinics, community development organizations, emergency shelters, adoption agencies, think tanks, publishing houses, and much more. And the free exercise of religion, religious freedom, is squelched if the government occupies all those areas of activity with its own programs or regulates so much or in such a way that religious organizations have to act just like their secular counterparts.
Astute commentators say that the current [American] election campaign is not just about jobs and deficits but more fundamentally about the role of government vs. the role of individuals. But step back further: it is, or should be, even more fundamentally about the relationship of government to civil society—about the proper relationship of government not just to individuals but also to families, businesses, churches, and faith-based (and secular) service organizations. And that means a lot of the discussion should be about religious freedom, freedom for religious organizations as well as for individual believers.