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Religious Liberty and the Pursuit of the Common Good

Two recent resources give us some clues that can get us started on the path toward cultivating civic virtue as a way of loving our neighbours.

Democratic Authority and the Separation of Church and State by Robert Audi. Oxford UP, 2011. 192pp.

Advancing the Common Good: Restoring our Role in Culture by Gabe Lyons. Zondervan, 2011. Audio/Video Series.



At a time of increased secularization, heightened tensions between adherents of different faiths, and the inevitable tensions that result, how should governments go about protecting religious liberty for all? And how should Christian citizens participate in the political order, acting on the basis of their moral convictions while affirming the religious liberties of those with deeply held beliefs that fundamentally differ from their own?

These questions are more urgent than ever, but they can easily leave us paralyzed. Fortunately, two recent resources—one a thin but heady book of philosophy, the other an interactive, practical study for church groups—give us some clues that can point us in the right direction and get us started on the path toward cultivating civic virtue as a way of loving our neighbours.

In Democratic Authority and the Separation of Church and State, Robert Audi, professor at Notre Dame and former president of the American Philosophical Society, presents a succinct argument that one of liberal democracy's fundamental functions is to protect religious liberty to the greatest extent possible without harm being done to other citizens.

But the task of defending religious liberty does not fall exclusively to governments. Citizens, too, have a responsibility to cultivate the kind of civic virtue that will contribute to the common good—including defending religious liberty for those with differing religious views.

Audi begins the first chapter by arguing that while ethics and religion have historically been seen as inseparable, "as a quest for sound moral principles" ethics can in fact stand alone. He appeals to religious readers on the basis of a version of divine command ethics, which in effect posits that moral obligations are directly tied to the commands of God. Though this is a theory Audi does not hold, he considers it potentially valid, arguing that it is quite possible that God would make moral truths known through what he calls natural reason, even though some may not recognize the true source of that knowledge. "It is not unreasonable," he suggests, "to suppose that God would wish us to have many ways to discover our obligations."

He goes on to name three kinds of moral authority—psychological, cultural-historical, and normative—and contends we often come to hold views on the basis of a combination of sources. Theologians and clergy, he says, are no exception. What is important for all of us, however, is to find theoretical or reflective equilibrium in which the varied sources of moral authority in our lives lead us to the same conclusions about matters of morality.

In the second chapter Audi writes that in upholding the separation of church and state, governments must consider and balance three core principles: the liberty principle, which requires governments to protect religious liberty; the equality principle, requiring equal treatment of all religions; and the neutrality principle, permitting no partiality to any one religion. Intervening to restrict the exercise of religious liberty is permitted only on the basis of what J.S. Mill called "the harm principle"—restricting some practices in order to prevent harm to other citizens.

Next Audi shifts from institutional principles to individual ones, focusing on the ethics of citizenship, with a particular emphasis on persuasion and coercion. "We are morally free, and should be legally free," he writes, "to seek to persuade others to do things we ought not to coerce them to do, whether the coercion is by legal or other means."

Religious liberty requires that citizens be permitted to hold beliefs derived from their respective faith traditions. But for those beliefs to be translated into laws that restrict human conduct, Audi says, we must be willing to offer "adequate secular reason" in addition to our religious reasons for advocacy or support. Ultimately, he says, this has just as much to do with protecting religious liberty as it does with protecting "the freedom rights of all citizens irrespective of their religious convictions."

In the fourth and final chapter, Audi proposes standards of peaceful coexistence that are essential for the cultivation of civic virtue, both domestically and in the world at large. In Audi's view, legislation is not the appropriate avenue for restricting every practice that clashes with our beliefs about right and wrong. "A morally sound democracy must protect liberties whose exercise is repugnant to some," he writes. "The expression of those liberties should be tolerated in a civilized way even where disapproval is expressed and dissuasion is attempted."

According to Audi, the cultivation of civic virtue requires considering the well-being of the other, not merely oneself or the subset of the population to which one belongs. "At least for Christians," Audi suggests, "the love commandments should have a kind of priority in sociopolitical matters." It is not always clear what love requires in specific public policy terms, but love must nonetheless be the foundation upon which the policies we support are built. And equally important, love must guide the tone of our dialogue and the nature of our activism in the public square. After all, as Audi puts it, "The love commandments impose obligations of manner, not just obligations of matter."

While Audi lays out a detailed theoretical framework for the responsibilities of governments to protect religious liberties, and the obligations of religious citizens to uphold those liberties, some Christians may be left wondering what specifically they can do to love their neighbours right where they are.

To explore those questions we turn to the work of Gabe Lyons, founder of Q Ideas. Incorporating the varied perspectives of an urban minister, an ethics professor, an interfaith dialogue facilitator, and a human rights activist, the study examines what it means to seek the flourishing of society as Christians when we find ourselves surrounded by those who do not share our beliefs.

In the first session of the study, Jo Saxton argues that our problem is fundamentally an ecclesiological one. Churches, she says, have all too often focused on gathering people in, to the exclusion of sending congregants out to those in need. Too many of us, offended by sin and uncomfortable or fearful in the face of human brokenness, seek to withdraw from the world in the name of "holiness" or "purity" rather than remaining in the thick of things, seeking the healing and restoration of our world.

Next, Dr. David Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University, contributes an essay on the sanctity of human life—a concept he believes is far too rich to be limited to a single political issue. "Most Christians," he writes, "would at least give lip service to the idea that human life is sacred." But too few of us, Gushee contends, have considered the full biblical basis for that belief and the potentially radical conclusions that might result in our ethics and political commitments.

Eboo Patel, a Muslim American who leads the Interfaith Youth Core, an organization that coordinates service projects for young people from different religious backgrounds, pleads with his evangelical audience to join the interfaith movement as allies in pursuit of the common good. Despite their differing convictions in many crucial religious matters, he says, Muslims, Christians, Jews, and others can all find within their respective faiths the motivation to seek the well-being of their neighbours.

In the fourth and final session of the study, human rights activist and philanthropy leader Shannon Sedgwick Davis turns our attention to the evils of genocide and human trafficking. While mass atrocities can easily overwhelm us, leading us to believe we can never make a difference, Davis says it's imperative that Christians respond, albeit in appropriate ways. "We can all sit here and be bolted to our chairs in despair," she says. "Or we can try to find a way to look for a glimmer of hope and run at it."

Participants are urged to engage in a "culture-shaping project" of their own, putting into practice the lessons they have learned. Suggested possibilities include upholding the sanctity of life by visiting the chronically ill in a nursing home and learning their stories; others may reach out to local congregations of other faiths and offer to join them in what they are already doing to seek the flourishing of the community.

Lyons warns that if doing justice or advancing the common good amounts to nothing more than just another alluring trend, it won't bear much lasting fruit. "We need a change of heart," he writes. "Not the kind of heart change that happens when we first accept God's grace and start following Jesus. But the kind of heart change where we begin dying to our own needs and desires and making ourselves wholeheartedly available for his mission in our lives."

It is noteworthy that all the contributors to the study articulate their commitments to advancing the common good in explicitly theological and religious terms, terms which some, like Audi, suggest would be better translated into explicitly ethical rather than religious terms.

But not all of these common good pursuits require advocating for public policies. Indeed, Christians can go out as "rescue teams" in their communities and around the world without government funding, and members of different religions can partner in service and dialogue apart from government programs. But it is clear that a deeply held belief in the sacredness of all human life, for instance, will sooner or later lead to public policy considerations aimed at actually protecting human life. And while individuals, churches, and nonprofit organizations can advocate for the victims of genocide or human trafficking, any viable efforts to stop these atrocities will inevitably involve petitioning governments to intervene.

The question pertaining to religious liberty, then, is whether Audi would consider these theologically and religiously motivated convictions a sufficient basis for supporting particular public policies. Here we are reminded of Audi's assertion that in addition to religious reasons, Christians and other religious citizens have a prima facie obligation to provide "adequate secular reason" before seeking to restrict any human conduct.

The Christian philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff is among those who warn that Audi's principles are excessively "exclusivist." In an article in the Journal of Law, Philosophy and Culture titled "The Paradoxical Role of Coercion in the Theory of Political Liberalism," Wolterstorff argues that in the end, the distinctions Audi makes between secular and religious reason are "entirely arbitrary." So long as citizens are seeking justice, rather than merely their own interests, Wolterstorff believes—and I'm inclined to agree—they should be free to use "whatever reasons they find appropriate" in advocating for their views.

Advancing the common good within the spheres in which God has placed us is easier said than done, as the study's contributors would readily concede, and as specific considerations of Audi's principles make clear. Nonetheless, it is an essential part of our calling as disciples of Jesus, and it warrants careful thought. To that end, I can think of four broad principles that might serve as guides in our pursuit of the common good.

First, seeking the common good requires that we adopt the "do-unto-others" approach when it comes to issues of religious liberty. As citizens grateful for the freedom to worship as we choose and to act on the basis of our convictions without undue governmental interference, we must promote and protect these same liberties for those of other faiths and for those of no faith at all. As Audi argues, the government should operate in part on the basis of the equality principle, treating all religious equally, showing partiality to none. And as Patel notes, it's not enough for Christians to get along with Christians and for Muslims to get along with Muslims, though that may admittedly be a step in the right direction. Rather, when adherents of different religions, holding fast to what is distinctive in those faiths, recognize common cause in serving their communities for the good of all, it would be a loss for everyone to let the opportunity pass us by.

Second, we must assume a posture of humility. It is easy to spot all that is wrong in the other; it takes courage to deal honestly with failures that hit closer to home. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn famously wrote in The Gulag Archipelago, "If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?" When we deal honestly with the reality of our own sin, as well as the imperfections of the various bodies within which we hold membership, we will be far less likely to engage in the demonization of others, a practice that inevitably unravels the fabric of society.

Third, the pursuit of the common good requires a willingness to call our individualism, and even our nationalism, into question. That it is impossible to seek the common good while concerned only for the well-being of oneself and one's own is obvious; cultivating civic virtue requires an outward reorientation. There may have been a time when towns and villages and countries were mostly self-contained; those days, however, are long gone. We live in a globalized world, a world in which it is nearly impossible to know whose hands have touched the clothing we wear, or even the tomatoes we eat for lunch. We have a special responsibility for those close to home, but obligations do not end when our neighbours are out of sight.

Finally, we would do well, whenever possible, to choose persuasion over coercion. Though it is at times appropriate and necessary for governments to restrict liberties when particular practices threaten to do harm, as citizens we should advocate such restrictions only with great caution. Though we need good laws to restrict certain kinds of bad behaviour, as Christians we know that laws seldom succeed in changing hearts. But seasoned with grace, and rooted in love, our persuasion may well do what coercion cannot.

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Tim Høiland Tim Høiland
Tim Høiland is an advocacy journalist and communications specialist working in the field of relief and development. ... read more »

Posted in Cultural Renewal.

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