What You Should Think About Religious Freedom

December 10, 2007

“When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in a flag and carrying a cross.”

–Sinclair Lewis

Last week I happened to catch Mitt Romney’s speech on faith in politics. As a contender in a partisan primary election, it came as no surprise that his message was carefully tailored to maximize its appeal to 21st century Republican voters. His embrace of diversity was not so broad that it included agnostics and atheists. Yet there seemed to be some sort of attempt to establish a theme following from the peculiar utterance, “there can be no religion without freedom and no freedom without religion.”

In the spirit of the season, I suppose Governor Romney should be granted a measure of charity. It could be said that religious practices dictated by force of law or other threat are not authentic. Given the choice between being crippled by stretching on the rack or professing my devotion to the faith of Torquemada, I suspect I would muster an articulate and convincing plea for spiritual salvation. Yet the devotion in those words would not reflect a devotion in my heart.

Christian practices supplanted pagan traditions in many parts of the Old World as a direct result of authorities wielding force to compel participation. Secret reverence for suppressed deities, nature spirits, etc. provides evidence that generations often passed between the forced imposition of Christianity on a community and widespread sincere belief in Christian doctrine. The underground survival of pagan practices, even in the face of the original witch hunts, reveals this to be the case.

Yet cannot sincere faith continue even where religious practices are forbidden? Are Chinese Christians, conducting informal services in private homes (much like the earliest generations of ancient Christians) not true believers? Wherever there is a state-mandated religion, or even state-mandated atheism, divergence from compulsory faith may be a genuine manifestation of faith. Religious practice might not be as easy or comfortable (or materially lavish) as it would otherwise be. Yet I believe some great figures in religious history would question if easy comfortable religious practice was truly better than adherence to a challenged faith.

For that matter, what is to be said about Christians in “liberated” Iraq? Saddam Hussein was a bona fide tyrant designated by some American leaders as a threat worthy of much more attention and resources than Osama bin Laden. Yet under Hussein’s rule, Iraq’s Christian minority peacefully coexisted with the Muslim majority. Christian churches were rarely vandalized, services generated little hostility, and the Vice President of Iraq took Communion on a regular basis. Now, years after George W. Bush declared “Mission Accomplished,” there are few parts of Iraq where civilians are not sure to draw persecution for overtly Christian activities.

The plight of Iraqi Christians provides us with a useful lens for scrutinizing both Mitt Romney’s remark and Republican rhetoric in general. Clearly “freedom” is not as simple a concept as it is made to seem by most political speech today. Saddam Hussein did use brutal methods, including techniques borrowed from Joseph Stalin’s playbook, to govern a nation harboring powerful cultural rifts between various Iraqi groups. Even so, he made good on a commitment to religious freedom in a part of the world where tolerance for other faiths is in short supply.

Perhaps there can be no genuine religious devotion without the freedom to choose the particulars of faith. Yet clearly religion can thrive in the general absence of civil or economic liberties. To suggest otherwise seems to reveal a failure to understand the nature of freedom, if not also the nature of religion. Of course, the flip side of Governor Romney’s remark is an even more dangerous misunderstanding. In declaring that there could be no freedom without religion, he reinforces the bogus Red Scare narrative holding that godlessness is a stepping stone to totalitarian governance.

There is much debate over the true religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers. Like the Freemasonry that served as a social network for many of them, individually they at least endorsed the existence of a higher power. In some instances this can be connected with strict observance of the practices of a particular sect. Yet for most of those hallowed men, no particular church attendance or other ritual behavior was regarded as a prerequisite to a life of virtue.

Most of them knew full well that great evil could be done in the name of Christ. Puritans and other radicals, not at all unlike modern Afghani Taliban, managed to set bad examples that went beyond the torture and murder of alleged “witches.” This nation was forged with keen sensitivity to the excesses of religious zeal and the pitfalls of intractable dogma propagated from the pulpit. Most of the Founding Fathers also followed suit with other Enlightenment thinkers in recognizing that great good can be done based on moral beliefs that exist independently of religious teaching.

Collectively, their words and their deeds both reveal the hope that this nation might be full of good acts and benefit from good leadership as a function of rational processes rooted in philosophy and science, not theology and scripture. After all, if a religious teaching illuminates a genuine moral lesson, then that lesson will stand on its own merits without any need for mortals to invoke the purported stance of deities on the subject. This reasonable restriction on moral thinking only seems weak or otherwise inferior to people who cannot overcome an attachment to unreasonable beliefs.

It is no more sensible to translate a personal incapacity to recognize achievements in the field of non-religious thinking on morality into disbelief in their usefulness than it would be to translate a personal incapacity to understand calculus into disbelief in the usefulness of rocket science. We may thrive without being a nation of philosophers just as we thrive without being a nation of mathematicians. Yet when the value of secular morality is rejected outright, the possibility of worthwhile social progress is also rejected. Non-religious thinking on morality is the only way any diverse society can go forward without instituting a state religion.

Even if one were so senseless as to simply eliminate or forcibly convert the millions of Americans do not view Jesus Christ as the savior of all mankind, Christianity itself is not a monolithic entity. Some sects really would ban alcohol, music, dancing, immodest attire, etc. Others impose strictures like a prohibition against military service or a refusal to acknowledge the dissolution of marriages. Many of the moral lessons dear to the hearts of some Christians are at odds with moral lessons dear to the hearts of other Christians.

In any working pluralist society, secular moral reasoning provides a common ground where no conclusion is cast aside but that it fails to make good sense in universal terms. In the late 18th century, among many different communities founded by European religious outcasts, it was especially clear that disaster would follow from letting articles of faith drive a national agenda. Our fundamental principle of religious freedom is as much a concession to practical reality as the embrace of a noble principle. A significant element of America’s success story is this independence of governance from ecclesiastical pressures.

The circumstances that drove Governor Romney to that particular speech paint a picture of this invaluable national asset under assault. For too long, to great excess, America’s political leaders have permitted faith and governance to become muddled in the public life. Countless citizens fail in their civic duty by embracing a falsified religious duty to evaluate candidates on religious grounds. This may be less a de jure violation of the 1st Amendment than President Bush’s Office of Faith Based Initiatives, but the nebulous trend is clearly a greater threat to authentic Constitutional governance.

If the Bible has any place in civic discourse, perhaps it should begin with these words attributed to Jesus himself — “render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s.” Many centuries before the Revolutionary War, there was a sensible (and to most Christians sacrosanct) call for separation between civic life and religious life. Like all religious conclusions worthy of advancing in political arenas, this belief stands strongly even when supported exclusively by secular arguments.

A religious commitment is innately a personal commitment. Within communities of faith, it may well also be a public commitment. Beyond communities of faith, in a broader society where many different faiths must coexist (ideally in peace,) dedication to religious teachings must give way to government action framed by enlightened secular moral thinking. By all means, do your best to live your private life and your church life as your faith demands. Insofar as you may have an American political life, your nation demands reason, neither supported nor encumbered by religion, should guide your words and deeds.