What Religious Freedom Should Look Like

Freedom of religion is something many of us take for granted in the United States. After all, it commands pride of place as the very first item discussed in the Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

But while most Americans still largely endorse the general idea of religious freedom, there are certainly competing views of how it should actually play out in our society. One major variable is how much religious belief and expression should be limited to the private sphere.

D. A. Carson, in chapter seven of his excellent recent book, The Tolerance of Intolerance,* frames four options. Briefly summarized, they are:

Option #1: People are free to think whatever they want about religion. But religious expression is heavily restricted once it leaves the realm of the purely private, i.e., meeting with others outside of approved places or proselytizing (even passing on beliefs to children) may be forbidden.

Option #2: People are free to think whatever they want and even gather with other like-minded people. If they do not hold to the dominant view of their culture, they may not proselytize. They are free to convert to the dominant view but not away from it. (This roughly describes many Muslim nations.) 

Option #3: On the strength of constitutional guarantees, people are free to hold their beliefs, meet with others, and even propagate their faith. Believers may enjoy certain immunities from laws that are otherwise generally applicable. Based on a particular understanding of separation of church and state, they may not, however, appeal to religious ideas and reasoning in the public square, i.e., in support of/opposition to issues and candidates. The deterrent to this may be legal or social. Religious citizens are effectively more limited in this way than “secular” citizens. 

Option #4: In addition to enjoying all the freedoms of option #3, citizens in this scenario are free to bring whatever sources of wisdom they can to bear on public questions and discussion. This view finds consistency with the separation of church and state as the concept was originally understood. It recognizes that prohibiting religious expression in the public sphere effectively endorses a naturalistic worldview and makes the state, in some measure at least, anti-religion.

With these options in mind, a few observations:

1.    I have little doubt that the vast majority of Americans would endorse either #3 or #4. It’s less clear, however, as to which of these two best describes our current society. I’m tempted to think we’re closer on the spectrum to #3, though the pressure against anything beyond general religious expressions is often being more social than explicitly codified in law.

2.    Perhaps a more important question, however, is which view Americans should endorse, even regardless of whether or not they are religious (see #3 below). Those who hold to something like option #3 often do so because they consider secular views to be basically neutral. But as many have pointed out, rather than occupying some sort of neutral ground from which it can sit in judgment of or arbitrate between religious views, secularism is itself a competing voice in the pubic square. No less than those springing from religious commitments, a purely secular worldview carries presuppositions, values, and the like that can and should be subject to examination and debate. 

3.    Further, as Carson notes in referring to the work of David Novak, only a view that grounds human rights in something greater than the state and/or the will of the majority can effectively criticize either when they become oppressive. “A long tradition of reflection,” writes Carson, “argues that if freedom of religion is progressively trimmed, it is only a matter of time before freedom, more comprehensively envisaged, is also progressively trimmed. It is not for nothing that freedom of religion is often called the first freedom—not merely in historical sequence, but in its foundational power.” 

4.    As Carson also notes, none of this is to say that Christians shouldn’t employ arguments in the public sphere that appeal more broadly to the larger culture. But, as he says, “that is a separate issue, an issue of prudence.”

* Carson is on my list of authors that seem to be virtually incapable of writing something that isn’t well worth the time to read. The Intolerance of Tolerance is no exception, and is relevant to several cultural questions that are both timely and vital.

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