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Religious Freedom: The Cornerstone of Strong Social Architecture (Part One)

Our communities are populated by such a diverse and flourishing set of nonprofit organizations and businesses only because our government allow these organizations the freedom to exist.

Editor's Note: These remarks are adapted from the 2013 Kuyper Lecture, sponsored by the Center for Public Justice and delivered April 25, 2013 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Used with permission. Click here for Part Two of this two-part series.

I will begin with a short passage from Abraham Kuyper and an item from the New York Times. It may be a surprise, but these two very different sources point us in the same direction.

Abraham Kuyper, of course, is well known as a theologian, political leader, creator of organizations, and theorist of the structure of society. But he was also a prolific writer of meditations on Scripture. In his devotion on Matthew 22, where Jesus states the two great commandments, Kuyper wrote this: "Love for God with all your soul, all your heart, and all your mind, may yet stop at the feelings, or be confined to the ideal, but when you must love God also with all your strength, then it claims your actual life, your whole personal existence, all the output of your person and life."

Kuyper explains that strength refers to all of your talents and gifts, all of "the powers and qualifications" you have, all of your resources and influence. And it is through all of these means of making a material difference in the world that God asks us to show our love for him.

Now to the New York Times. David Brooks writes in a piece entitled "The Orthodox Surge" about the contemporary flourishing of the Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish communities in New York despite—or rather because of—their attachment to ancient biblical teachings. The column talks about Pomegranate, the "luxury kosher grocery store" in Brooklyn. "It looks like a really nice Whole Foods [store]," Brooks says, with long aisles loaded with a profusion of enticing products. And "pervasive" throughout the store, he reports, are "the specialty products designed around this or that aspect of Jewish law. . . . Dairyfree cheese puffs, . . . precut disposable tablecloths so that you don't have to use scissors on the Sabbath." Sponges that don't retain water so that on the Sabbath you don't have to do the work of squeezing out the water. And so on.

Isn't that striking! In the midst of New York City is a flourishing community of people whose faith means so much to them that it has resulted in a religiously distinctive grocery store and religiously distinctive shopping. Even when shopping for cheese puffs, tablecloths, and sponges, these people insist that their faith, their religious convictions, must be honoured. Here is a determined effort to show love of God and His ways not just through feelings, thinking, or in the heart, but with all of their strength—because loving God with all of our strength, as Kuyper said, "claims your actual life, your whole personal existence, all the output of your person and life."

Kuyper's meditation and the Pomegranate store remind us that religion—that is, a life of obedience to God—is not only a matter of worship, of prayer, of private devotions. It is not even just a matter of personal religious exercise, but it extends to and should shape every aspect of our lives—including the ways we serve our neighbours, not only in acts of benevolence but also in the operation of a supermarket.

You will recall that Kuyper elsewhere referred to this same idea in his memorable phrase: "There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: 'Mine!'"

But there are strong and growing pressures in our society to press religious faith out of public life and into private corners, pressures to confine religion to worship and remove it from guiding the ways people of faith serve their neighbours through faith-based service organizations and through companies of conviction. That is, the growing contemporary pressure to confine Christ's sovereignty to just a few square inches—the square inches of houses of worship, your family life, or your devotions.

But we should start where we are. The United States and Canada are nations full of an astonishing range of organizations created to put into practice one or another religious or moral or philosophical conviction about life—organizations designed to serve others but in particular ways, guided by particular visions and passions. That's what we see in the story of the Pomegranate luxury kosher grocery store. It is what we see in institutions of higher education that are boldly and openly Christ-centred as they educate, research, and speak to the world. These schools and Pomegranate are just two of thousands and thousands of such organizations—distinctive schools, hospitals, companies, emergency shelters, and so many more.

This is a social architecture in which private organizations are free to flourish while at the same time reflecting and embodying particular conceptions of what is good. It is possible because religious freedom has not been confined to freedom of worship or to only an individual freedom of religious exercise, but instead has also extended to organizations that serve the public.

What arrangement of society, what kind of rights, does it take for Christians and people of other faiths to be able to live consistently with their deepest convictions in society—in civil society and in the business world? Well, for that, we need both a negative and a positive freedom. We need, sometimes, the negative freedom to opt out of activities that are otherwise required of everyone, a freedom of conscience that excuses us from participating in some activity that we are convinced is seriously wrong, even if others in our society are sure it is very right and important. Yet to live faithfully we need more than a negative freedom not to participate. We also need a positive freedom: the freedom to turn our best convictions into the practical service of others in particular ways we believe will honour God and help the flourishing of our neighbours. And if those convictions are not the convictions widely shared in our society, than our positive freedom to be different has to be a freedom to create distinctive new organizations, organizations different than those created by others. How can an organization be a vehicle to put into practice a wholehearted commitment to some particular vision of the good, some specific understanding of how best to love God and neighbour?

We can name three ways a commitment to a particular conception of the good should come to expression. The organization should be able to manifest a faith-shaped identity that can be seen in its mission statement, the symbols it uses, the people who serve on its board of directors. Even more important, the organization should be able to have a distinctive inner-life that might feature faith-shaped standards for employment, a particular schedule of employee benefits, certain staff practices, or perhaps spiritual formation retreats. And it is vital that the organization can have a faith-influenced set of services: it will offer spiritual counselling as well as psychological counselling; it will not perform abortions but will refer for adoption; it will refuse to make certain products or it will be careful to adopt some specific production methods. We can see those three dimensions of distinctiveness in organizations all around us, most clearly in parachurch organizations like Calvin College, Catholic Charities, Bethany Christian Services, gospel rescue missions, and many others, but also in the Pomegranate kosher grocery store and in other companies that are inspired and shaped by faith. But note carefully: organizations can be distinctive in these ways—they can be vehicles to put our convictions about God into practice in service of our neighbours—only if the government honours and protects their freedom to be different. Federal, state, municipal, and county rules affect organizations at every turn: the imperatives of employment law; the requirements of licensing for the organization and for its professional staff; rules about how clients must be treated and who must be counted as a client; restrictions attached to government funding; standards that must be met to obtain tax-exempt status; and much more.

For the organization to be able to exemplify—to testify to and to put into practice—its vision, even though that vision differs from what much of society thinks is best, the government must not compel it to follow the society's vision instead of its own. There must be a robust institutional freedom of conscience, freedom for the organization to depart from what is otherwise required of other organizations at work in the same area of service. And we can thankfully say that, to a great extent, government policy in our country has respected this institutional freedom to be different—that is why our society, our communities, are populated by such a diverse and flourishing set of nonprofit organizations and businesses.

Part Two published June 7, 2013.

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Stanley Carlson-Thies Stanley Carlson-Thies
Stanley Carlson-Thies is founder and President of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, and a Senior Fellow for Cardus. ... read more »

Posted in Institutions, Religion.

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