‘Religious Freedom’ Issues: A Field Guide (Part 1)

The Catholic Church has made it abundantly clear in the past few weeks that it does not want to be forced to provide health insurance coverage for those in its employ who may want to avail themselves of contraceptives.

This has been framed by the Christian Right as a “religious freedom” issue. I too have an interest in religious freedom–which, as you may recall, I see as complementary to freedom from religion. For these reasons, I think it is important to clarify some recurring confusions in what is emerging as the central faith-based flashpoint in the 2012 presidential race and a potential wedge issue.

Now religious freedom is a sterling value. Secularists, I argue, greatly appreciate its import and significance. If you read my forthcoming book, you will see that religious freedom is one of the central components of the secular vision as it developed in Christian political philosophy and as it evolved into liberal theories of governance during the Enlightenment.

But religious freedom is neither the supreme nor the only value that secularists hold dear. Nor can it logically be the supreme or only value that a democratic state holds dear.

We, as a people, have generally understood this. I can think of few precedents in the history of the United States, or that of any other country for that matter, where religious freedom was in law and practice recognized as an absolute right.

Those Christian Conservatives who are advocating for religious freedom obscure, willfully I think, a crucial and rather well-known distinction. The right to believe anything you want to believe about God has traditionally been granted in this glorious nation of ours. The right to unilaterally act upon one’s religious beliefs, however, when these beliefs contravene public order or, more simply, the laws of the land does not and cannot exist.

Scholars who study secularism sometimes refer to this as the “belief/acts dichotomy.” What is maddening about proponents of religious freedom on the Christian Right is that they conflate rights of conscience (a hard fought and incandescent accomplishment of Western democracy) with the categorical and unilateral right of (Christian) citizens to act upon all of their religious scruples.

I make no judgment about the moral yield of efforts to unite belief and act. A person of faith in a public sector job could discriminate against homosexuals as a result of religious conscience. A person of faith could chain herself to a fence and deter the delivery of supplies to a government arms facility as a result of religious conscience. A person of faith could see fit to throw a rock at the head of a sabbath desecrator as a result of religious conscience.

The point is that any one of these persons of faith would wind up in court or the clink. That’s because no functioning democracy can permit the anarchic scenario in which its citizens act upon all of their religious scruples. And it matters little how profoundly or sincerely held these scruples may be.

The case of the Catholic Church mentioned above has served as the coming out party for “religious freedom” which is gradually and regrettably becoming a codeword and umbrella term for certain types of Conservative Christian policy initiatives.

The question Church’s position on the HHS mandate mentioned above is obviously very complicated–far more complicated than decried by “religious freedom” activists who have glommed on to the controversy.  In the next post I hope to draw attention to one of those complicating factors.





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