This is indeed a big question. It implicates an array of philosophical issues and scholarly disciplines, but it also has distinctly practical, even strategic, dimensions. That is to say, it raises questions not only about human nature and human flourishing, but about the freedom and stability of whole societies, as well as international peace.

The “other freedoms” with which we are here concerned typically exist in a mature democratic system of civil society and ordered liberty. They include the freedoms of expression, association, assembly, economic activity, and equality under the law, and freedom from persecution or unjust violence.

If the answer to our question is “yes,” then religious liberty should be seen not only as a right that is critical to individuals, but also as a kind of linchpin for the bundle of freedoms that enable democracy to take root. If the other freedoms are somehow dependent on religious liberty, nations experimenting with democratic governance (think Egypt or Iraq) are unlikely to succeed without it. Furthermore, without religious freedom they are less likely to contain or eliminate violent religious persecution, extremism, or terrorism.

If, on the other hand, the answer is “no,” then religious freedom can be seen as important or unimportant, but — in either case — largely separable from human flourishing or the other freedoms characteristic of successful democracies.

We will return to human flourishing at the end of this essay. As for the broader issue of ordered liberty, both history and modern scholarship provide compelling evidence that religious freedom is indeed a necessary condition for sustaining the liberties that make democracy last. Of course, the other liberties are also critical. In a very real sense, each is necessary to the whole. In the 21st century, however, religious freedom is in global deficit (seventy percent of the world’s people lives in nations in which religious freedom is highly or very highly restricted). This factor increases the salience of our big question.

What is at Stake?

Before exploring the answer, let us briefly define what we are talking about. Religion can usefully be understood as the human quest for other-than-human sources of ultimate meaning and purpose. It typically entails an effort, by individuals and communities, to understand, commune with, and express truths about a transcendent reality. Individuals and communities often seek to organize their lives around this reality, to be guided by it in their moral conduct, and to manifest the truths they believe they have discovered. Recent studies in developmental psychology suggest that the religious quest is natural to human beings.

Religious freedom, then, is the right, protected in law, to engage in the religious quest, either alone or in community with others, in private and in public. It begins with an interior right to believe or not. It typically carries the believer into relationships with others of like mind and spirit and, ultimately, into associations that have both private and public dimensions: prayer or worship services, the purchase or sale of property, investment of funds, building houses of worship, training clergy, and inviting others to join the religious community.

Some religious acts, by individuals or communities, represent a public pursuit of religious obligation, or witness of truth claims, in civil society: for example, the establishment of religious hospitals, schools and colleges, homes for the aged, soup kitchens, or immigration services. Some carry religious actors into political discourse and competition, forming religion-based political parties, or making religion-based political arguments for or against laws and policies. Religious freedom is the civil right of both individuals and communities to perform these acts on the basis of full equality under the law.

“Equality under the law,” of course, imposes limits. All religious beliefs and acts in civil and political society are not, per se, equal. Those that are violent or destructive of liberal democratic norms are forbidden or limited by law.

Now to Answering our Big Question

First, note that religious freedom as here defined includes other fundamental freedoms. They are integral elements of religious freedom. In pursuing the religious quest, religious actors exercise freedom of belief or non-belief, expression, assembly, and association. They must enjoy full equality under the law, and freedom from persecution and unjust violence.

But can religious freedom be seen as necessary for the flourishing of the other freedoms within pluralist societies comprised of many religious and non-religious citizens and views? There are good reasons to believe that the answer is yes. Two historical examples will help illuminate those reasons.

First, America’s founding generation identified religious freedom as “the first freedom” because they saw it, in effect, as a precondition for the other freedoms. James Madison wrote that each of us has rights that flow from the duty we owe God. “This duty is precedent, both in order of time and degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe.”

Further, Madison insisted that if men were to fulfill their obligation to God they must have freedom — especially freedom from the coercive powers of the state. “The Duty which we owe our Creator, and the manner of our discharging it, can be governed only by Reason and Conviction, not by Compulsion or Violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the full and free exercise of it according to the dictates of conscience, unpunished and unrestrained by the Magistrate. . . .”

Here, then, in man’s duty to the God who created him, and gave him reason and will, lay man’s natural right to religious freedom. In other words, performing the duty required freedom, or, as Madison put it, the right of “free exercise” of religion. To the founders it was necessary to the operation of the other freedoms. As George Washington expressed the point in his final farewell address: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are the indispensable supports.”

A second example from contemporary history: political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote that the third wave of democratization, which began in the 1970s and extended into the 1990s, was dominated by Catholic nations, and a key element of their transition to democracy was the Church’s embrace — during the Second Vatican Council — of religious liberty for all.

In other words, the Church’s adoption of religious freedom helped trigger a movement toward democracy in Catholic countries, thereby encouraging the emergence, and the merging, of the other freedoms. In effect, Catholic clergy and laity were spurred to make public arguments that weakened the hand of authoritarian governments (many of which had been allied with the Catholic Church), thereby expanding the opportunity for democratic civil society and political movements to emerge. Importantly, the new Catholic articulation of religious liberty supported the expressive and associational freedom and equality of non-Catholics within civil and political society.

It appears that religious freedom may have had a galvanizing effect. In nations like Poland, Spain, Chile, and the Philippines, other freedoms had existed to one degree or another – a relatively free press, some economic freedoms, or limited forms of associational freedom. But until religious liberty became part of an interlocking web of key freedoms, the others seem to have been insufficient to trigger either a transition to democracy or its consolidation.

Why might this be the case? Because any state that protects religious liberty thereby limits itself. Religious liberty empowers religious actors both to perform services that might otherwise be carried out by the state, and to adhere to an authority beyond the state. For this very reason, authoritarian governments might understandably permit some secular assembly and speech, while banning or restricting religious assembly and speech. Such has been a pattern throughout history – from Stalin, Mao and Hitler, to Mexico’s Plutarco Calles and Syria’s Bashar Assad.

By the same token, empirical studies are confirming a strong relationship between religious freedom and the other freedoms that contribute to the longevity of democracy. The work of sociologists Brian Grim and Roger Finke, for example, shows high statistical correlations between religious liberty and the presence of the other fundamental freedoms that ensure the longevity of democracy, including civil and political liberty, freedom of the press, and economic freedom. Religious freedom is also highly associated with overall human development, and the absence of violent religious extremism. As Grim notes, correlation does not prove causation. He concludes however, that “advanced statistical tests suggest that there is indeed a critical independent contribution that religious freedom is making” to the other freedoms.
So Where Does This Leave Us?

To repeat, history and modern scholarship (both theoretical and empirical) provide reasons to believe what common sense would suggest. In order to mature and last, democracies require a bundle of necessary, interlocking freedoms, including religious freedom.

But there appears to be something distinctive about religious freedom, something close to what the American Founders meant when they declared it the “first freedom.” Religion bears on the most fundamental and powerful questions that most human beings feel compelled to answer, such as, “why do I exist and what is my destiny? Given my understanding of transcendent reality, what must I do to live a good life?” The religious questions, in other words, are not instrumental. They arise naturally and address ultimate things, with an inherent power that seems universal and timeless. The religious questions, in short, beckon us all.

It is unsurprising then, that the answers we derive from the religious questions shape thought and compel action, both individually and in association with others. As such, the questions and the answers inevitably bear on the institutions of civil society and the norms of political life.

This is why the growing international deficit in religious freedom is so troubling. It is also why the travail of religious liberty in Europe and the United States is, or ought to be, a reason for deep concern for religious and non-religious citizens. As we have seen, the evidence suggests that democracies will not remain stable unless they protect religious liberty (and the bundle of freedoms to which it is so intimately tied).

But, at the end of the day, the question returns to individual human beings. Religious freedom is the sine qua non of living freely. You may allow me to vote, own property, and associate freely in the public square in every other way. But if you do not permit me to speak and to act on those beliefs about ultimate reality that define who I am and why I am on this earth, then the other freedoms mean little. In a very real sense, then, all human freedoms depend on the freedom of religion.

These are some questions for your consideration in the discussion:

1. How in your view is religious liberty related to other fundamental freedoms? Can the other freedoms operate if religious freedom is unduly restricted or denied?

2. Should religious freedom be seen as primarily a private right, i.e., exercised in ways interior to the person and in houses of worship? Or should religious freedom include the right to engage in public life, both in civil society and in political life?

3. Is religious freedom a “pre political right” or is it created by the state?

4. Should Western democracies, including the United States, attempt to promote international religious freedom? If so, why? If not, why not?

Discussion Summary

As I reflect on this discussion several key themes emerge. The discussants raised a wide spectrum of issues worthy of the Big Question posed in the original essay (i.e., “Is religious freedom necessary for other freedoms to flourish?”). These questions highlighted the depth and breadth of the Big Question itself, which has both theoretical and practical dimensions.

Among the issues raised by discussants were political and sociological questions (how will religious freedom affect the fates of the so-called Arab Spring countries and of China?), theological-philosophical questions (is the modern Catholic understanding of religious freedom really a form of indifferentism? Does Islam have the theological basis to develop a political understanding of religious freedom?), and legal-philosophical questions (in a regime of religious liberty that includes the right of the majority to make political arguments based on religious views — such as the regime described in the original essay — how are minority rights to be protected?).

Here are the Two New Big Questions that I see arising from our discussion.

1. Can religious freedom truly be understood in the 21st century, especially by non-Western societies, as a pre-political right rather than the gift of governments?

This is slightly different than asking whether it is true that religious freedom is a pre-political right. It was in fact held to be so by generations of Western philosophers, theologians, and politicians (e.g., Madison, Jefferson, and Washington). But that truth, if truth it be, is in the West no longer widely understood as such, except perhaps in the narrowest sense. The current generation of American political elites would probably concede freedom of belief and worship as a pre-political right attaching to all human beings by virtue of their existence, but they would no longer universally agree that the public aspects of religious freedom discussed in the original essay (e.g., faith-based entities in civil society, or religious arguments in political life) are part of that fundamental right. Why this is the case is an interesting and very broad subject worthy of its own treatment.

The point I would wish to make here is that non-Western nations have never accepted religious freedom as a pre-political right. Today they tend to see it as a threat, e.g., an example of Western cultural imperialism designed to secure space for Western Christian missionaries and, in Muslim-majority nations, to move Islam to the margins of public life. A resulting dilemma for the American policy of advancing international religious freedom is how to overcome these perceptions, and the widespread resistance to the very idea of religious liberty. It seems to me the United States is unlikely to be persuasive in arguing that religious liberty is a pre-political right in cultures where there is no philosophical or theological basis for accepting such an argument.

Some would respond that there is, or may be, such a basis in certain interpretations of Islam, or in Orthodox nations such as Russia. In either case, however, it seems to me that the prudent course is to emphasize the more practical arguments about the advantages of religious freedom made in the original essay — i.e., that it is necessary if democracy is to last, or if violent religious extremism and terrorism are to be defeated, or if economic freedom and social harmony are to emerge and endure. These practical arguments can act as pathways to deeper reflection. If there are compelling political, economic, social, and intellectual reasons for embracing religious freedom, the philosophers and theologians will take notice. Then we will be in the position to determine whether, as Columbia political theorist Alfred Stepan has long argued, most religions of the world are capable of discovering within their own comprehensive doctrines the basis for liberal self government.

2. Does religious freedom relativize all religions, including false ones?

There is some evidence for the proposition, offered by one of our discussants, that religious freedom as I have described it puts all religions on the same plane, inviting observers to conclude that all are equally true, or that none is truer than the others.

The evidence for this proposition lies in the requirement for equal treatment of all religions in the civil and political spheres. No religion is to be privileged in law over others. All have equal protections within civil society (e.g., in the forming of faith-based hospitals, colleges, soup kitchens and the like). All have equal access to the political processes of the state (e.g, each may make political arguments based on their religious teachings, form political parties based on those teachings, and the like).

This principle of equality in civil and political life has clearly lent support in the West to trends toward religious indifferentism, trends that are grounded in philosophical relativism and materialist scientism. However, religious freedom as I have described it is manifestly not an assertion that all religions are equally true, either morally or theologically. Rather, it rests on the assumption that liberal democracy works best when it avoids monopolies of power among human beings – political, economic, and religious.

In the end, religious freedom does not relativize truth. Rather, it allows human beings to respond to truth as they apprehend it. If, as many believe, there is one God who created and sustains each of us, and one religion that contains the fullest expression of the truths about God and man, then surely human beings can discover this God and that religion. If God exists, and if that religion is true, they beckon us all. And if we are to find them we must have freedom.

9 Responses

  1. hoya14 says:

    I think that applying this critical question to non-western regimes can add much to the discussion. The key current examples are most certainly the Arab Spring nations and China.

    Firstly, what has become of the Arab Spring and the great hopes for democratic transition? The end of oppressive regimes certainly opened many doors for a number of societies seeking new freedoms and rights, rights that their parents may never have even dreamed of. But despite a few peaceful democratic elections, what has become of the great democratic transition that both the West and reformers were looking for? What is missing from the “demcoratic revolutions” that supposedly have swept through a previously oppressed part of the world?

    I would argue that genuine concern for religious freedom is what is missing, and if accurate, this would lend great evidence towards the claim that religious freedom is necessary for other freedoms to flourish. The demonstrated influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the stated interest in Sharia Law for Libya’s constitution are troubling for religious freedom, and if radicalized to the extent that other societies have faced, could represent the same oppession as under secular dictatorship. Would a democratic Egypt, Libya, or Tunisia without religious freedom be flourishing democracies? How the Arab Spring plays out will definitely provide more answers to this critical question.

    China is another rich example. The purely political pressure of Tianemmen Square is engrained in the minds of all who seek freedom for China, but 20 years later, what gains has China made in personal freedoms? Economic freedoms have slightly increased for sure, but democratization is a far ways off. Interestingly enough, the greatest pressure for freedom in China now comes from the growing religious population, whether it is Tibetan Buddhists, Xinjiang-area Muslims, or the skyrocketing Christian population. Some of the most well-respected Chinese dissidents, such as pastor Bob Fu, are leaders of religious communities seeking religious freedom. Chinese scandals have gained national attention thanks to Chinese Christians, who have begun to attack the most oppressive of Chinese policies based on their faith, including the one-child policy. Finally, some of the greatest expressions of dissent have come from Catholic bishops in China who refuse to accept the legitimacy of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Chuch and are fighting for religious freedom from the state’s control. These battles for religious freedom seem to have advanced the general cause for freedom and democracy more than previous secular political fights for freedom.

  2. curtins says:

    Prof. Farr’s treatment of the Catholic Church, vis-a-vis religious freedom, raises some interesting questions. Of course, Dignitatis Humane, seems to put the Church squarely on the side of religious freedom. But has this always been the case? In fact, does Dignitatis perhaps draw on a false hermenuetic that ultimately does not take into account the Church’s prior position, or even more importantly, that presents a situation of confusion and contradiction within the Church?

    Here is a recent piece by Italian historian Roberto de Mattei:

    It offers a wider perspective on the Church’s historical stance on the issue of religious freedom. We come to the famous addage “error has no rights.” The question for the Catholic Church, is, does the current stance toward religious freedom, as expressd in Dignitatis, set up a conflict with the Church’s claim to posess the fullness of truth and divine revelation? If the Church posits religious freedom as a positive right, not as a tolerated reality, it seems to suggest that ostensibly false religions (non-Christian, non-Catholic) are put on the same objective  level of value as the Catholic religion. Does religious freedom equalize or even relativize all religions? Might a better way of looking at the question be to consider the liberty of the Church and the freedom of Christians, given that it/they posess the truth about ultimate things, wherein other religions may be tolerated as a practical matter of keeping the peace, social harmony etc, but that, in principal an affirmation of religious freedom weakens the Church’s claim to absolute truth.

    • Thomas Farr says:

      My view is that Dignitatis Humanae (the Catholic Church’s 1965 Declaration on Religious Liberty from the Second Vatican Council) does not equalize or relativize all religions. In fact, the document states explicity that this teaching, while a development of doctrine, does not alter the Church’s traditional doctrinal claims about what it is.

      What is new is that the Church is no longer claiming privileged access to the civil and police powers of the state. In effect, it is declaring its willingness to compete with other religious groups within civil and political society — both for the allegiance of souls and for the ability to shape public policy — without the kinds of laws and policies that once put the Catholic Church in a privileged position. Indeed, Dignitatis demands that every religious group have an equal right in public life. 

      In sum, the Catholic Church still claims that it is the Church left by Christ for the beneit of all. Its absolute truth claims have not changed. But in society it now demands that all other groups have an equal right to make their claims. That is religious freedom in the civil order.

  3. Thomas Farr says:

    We recently had an event at Georgetown focusing on religious freedom and the Arab Spring (available for viewing at during which this issue was vigorously debated. Some panelists argued that pressing the question of religious freedom in full (as opposed to religious toleration, or perhaps the absence of persecution) was simply too incendiary during a transition to democracy. Far better, some scholars argued, to settle democratic institutions first, and then work for a modest version of religious freedom.

    There is in fact some wisdom in this approach. It is simply unrealistic to expect a society that has never embraced religious freedom, and which sees it as an American trojan horse designed to undermine Islam and pave the way for missionaries, simply to accept it. The problem is that neither the United States nor any other country is attempting to make the more important point to the Egyptians: if you do not find a way to move toward equality of all religious citizens before the law, your quest for democracy will fail. It is an appeal to self interest, rather than a finger-wagging exercise. 

    Whether the Muslim Brotherhood is capable of seeing the connection between religious freedom and their own interests depends, of course, on how they define their interests. My guess is that they are divided on this. Whatever one’s views about the MB, however, the reality is that they are in a position of great power. We cannot ignore them, but we’d better know how to deal with them.

    As for China, I think hoya 14 is quite right. Religious actors have increased freedom there more than most, if not all, other groups. The problem is that the Chinese government sees these groups as a threat, which accounts for the occasional, brutal crackdown that accompanies its system of managing and controlling religion. Imagine what might happen if the Chinese came to believe that religious libery were connected to economic development, or the kind of economic development that is sustainable over the long-term. If the government thought backing off the Tibettan Buddhists, Muslims and Chrisitans would increase social harmony and increase stable economic growth, they would be far more likely to take a good hard look at the value of religious freedom.


  4. RFSJR says:

    Dr. Farr’s arguments are compelling.  Any state that demands precedence over God is by definition totalitarian.  Ordered liberty requires certain limits (e.g., the “cult of Kali” which demanded murder as a rite of worship violates the natural law and Judeo-Christian teaching, of course), but within that somewhat confined context religious liberty in public, professional and private life is foundational to every other form of libert.

  5. The Sage of Mount Airy says:

    While I would agree that religious liberty is in a very important sense foundational, that is, other liberties depend upon it, it strikes me that there’s still something a bit too abstract about the discussion of it.  What I mean is that historically the idea of religious liberty has been recognized, respected, and insitutionalized in some societies and not in others.  Why?

    While the “religious quest” may indeed be universal, and conceded as such by all, I’m less confident about the self-evident universality of the idea of religious liberty.  Some religious traditions, even when pursued with a good will, make that “especially” when pursued with a good will, seem to exclude the very idea, to engage it at all is to risk heresy.  Even the instrumental case for it, i.e., it leads to other “goods” for a society, may sound to some devout ears more heretical stil, vulgar even.

    Other traditions (the Judeo-Christian tradition, e.g.), by contrast, have come to almost embody the idea of tolerance which is the root at least of the tree that is religious liberty.  To extend the metaphor, I’m not sure the idea of religious liberty can take root unless it is supported by a soil previously cultivated by a religious tradition that not only allows, but demands tolerance. 

    Where does that leave us? 

    It is important for the US, consistent with both our ideals and our interests, to use whatever leverage we have to discourage religious persecution abroad.  To that more humble end, we may well have some, perhaps even great effect.  It’s our duty to try.  But the creation of a culture of religious tolerance, much less religious liberty, is, I’m afraid, going to take some time, some very long time.       

    • Thomas Farr says:

      Mt Airy’s sage has raised some very important questions. He notes, quite correctly, that even if everyone agreed that religion is universal, not everyone would agree that the free exercise of religion is, or ought to be, universally protected. Even an “instrumental” case for religious freedom — e.g., that religious freedom may be a linchpin of the bundle of freedoms necessary for democracy to take root, or that religious freedom can stimulate economic growth, or undermine terrorism — will cut no ice with someone who sees religious liberty as a license to commit heresy. After all, why should a religion acknowledge a “right” to act in ways that will send a person to hell, even if acknowledging that right might have some positive social effect?

      When a religious tradition holds such views about heresy, how can we expect it to embrace tolerance, let alone full-blown religious liberty?

      Although the sage does not mention a particular religion, he may have in mind Islam. In some Muslim majority countries (for example, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan) some acts of religious freedom are identified as heretical in law and culture, and can be severely punished by the state. Examples are apostasy (leaving Islam for another religion), blasphemy (acting as if one were God), and defamation (defaming Islam or its Prophet).

      I agree with the sage that, in such countries, creating a culture of religious tolerance and freedom will be quite difficult. I also agree that many, perhaps most, Islamic believers in these countries are unlikely to abandon core theological principles merely because social goods might be the result. However, history suggests that religious doctrine can evolve on the question of religious freedom. It is true, as the sage suggests, that doctrinal seeds must exist if they are to grow, but it is also true that the exigencies of history can encourage them to grow.

      Take Christianity. In its 14th century Christianity shared some characteristics exhibited by contemporary Islam (today in its 14th century). The Catholic Church supported the criminalization of certain forms of heresy, and occasionally sanctioned the death penalty for apostasy. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that those “who have never received the faith … are by no means to be compelled to the faith,” but those who have received it, “such as heretics and all apostates … should be submitted even to bodily compulsion….”

      Only in 1965 did the Catholic Church embrace religious liberty in full – in the aforementioned declarationDignitatis Humanae. But, as noted in the initial essay,Dignitatisdid not signal an abandonment of Catholic doctrines, such as the teaching that heresy or apostasy are mortal sins. Religious liberty was manifestlynotarticulated as a liberty to believe or do anything one wishes, but the liberty – consistent with the dignity of the human person — to make choices on matters religious free of coercion from any human agent. In short, the Church no longer demands the right to enlist the state in teaching what is true – only the right to teach the truth in civil and political society freely, without state interference.

      What explains the development of Catholic doctrine? That is a complex question beyond the scope of this essay, but there are two points that go to the concerns expressed by our sage. The first is that the doctrinal seeds of religious freedom were present from the beginning in Catholic Christianity – for example, in the dignity of the person made in the image and likeness of God, and whose worth was sufficient to merit the love of God reflected in the expiatory life, passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

      The second is that those seeds blossomed in a soil that was becoming more and more accustomed to political forms of self governance and ordered liberty. Dignitatisitself begins with an acknowledgment that history was moving in the direction of greater human freedom. In short, the emergence of liberalism and democracy in the 20thcentury, especially as it evolved in the United States, encouraged the Catholic Church to look deeply into its deposit of faith. The result was the promulgation of developed doctrine compatible with, and encouraging of, liberal democracy. 

      Can Islam come to this understanding? Our sage suggests not, and that US foreign policy should probably not make the effort to encourage it to do so. Instead, we should do what we can to reduce persecution. The question of Islam’s potential is one which I am unqualified to answer; I am neither a Muslim nor an expert on Islam. And, of course, Islam has no religious authority analogous to the Roman Catholic magisterium. But I have observed that there are many Muslims (e.g., Abdullah Saeed, Hamza Yusuf, Khaled Abou El Fadl) who argue that Islam does possess the theological ground for religious freedom. And I have also observed that Muslims in growing numbers worldwide seem to be searching for their own forms of stable self-government, including in the Arab nations once thought least capable of achieving it.

      So where I come down is this: if indeed religious freedom is necessary for the other freedoms to flourish and for democracy to take root, and if there are indigenous Muslims who themselves seek both democracy and religious freedom, then it is in the vital national interests of the United States to help them achieve both. An effective US international religious freedom policy will not only help those societies flourish, it will reduce persecution far more effectively than our anemic, ad hoc efforts have done to date.

      To the sage of Mt Airy, I say: while it is doubtless true that we cannot “create” religious freedom or democracy anywhere in the world, including the Muslim world, the evidence suggests that peoples struggling to adopt democracy need religious freedom if they are to succeed, if persecution is to diminish in any significant way, and if religion-based terrorism is to be overcome. On the scale of the potential costs to us, which are low, and the potential benefits, which are significant, this seems to me a powerful argument for greater efforts to advance religious freedom in American foreign policy.   

  6. dhoover says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with Dr. Farr’s essay about the philosophical and empirically verified linkages between religious freedom and other freedoms (and with his point in the discussion about religious freedom having nothing whatsoever to do with relativizing all religions). One point in the essay that I think warrants further discussion, though, is the assertion that religious freedom includes the right to bring religion directly into political action as long as it’s done so “on the basis of full equality under the law.”

    Some religious acts, by individuals or communities, represent a public pursuit of religious obligation, or witness of truth claims, in civil society: for example, the establishment of religious hospitals, schools and colleges, homes for the aged, soup kitchens, or immigration services. Some carry religious actors into political discourse and competition, forming religion-based political parties, or making religion-based political arguments for or against laws and policies. Religious freedom is the civil right of both individuals and communities to perform these acts on the basis of full equality under the law.

    “Equality under the law,” of course, imposes limits. All religious beliefs and acts in civil and political society are not, per se, equal. Those that are violent or destructive of liberal democratic norms are forbidden or limited by law.

    The matter of limits on religious politics is of critical importance to religious minorities, especially in countries where dominant groups think that “democracy” only requires holding elections. Dr. Farr notes rightly that if a form of religious politics is “destructive of liberal democratic norms,” it should be “forbidden or limited by law.” But where does that “law” come from, and what are the implications for countries today that are transitioning (maybe) away from authoritarianism? Is it a matter of constitutional provisions that explicitly protect individuals and minorities from tyranny of the religious majority?

    • Thomas Farr says:

      I thank Dr. Hoover for highlighting a very important point, i.e., that the limitations of law as they are imposed by authoritarian governments — for example, the Chinese government — are likely to be unjust or arbitrary. When I speak of religious freedom being grounded in the equality of all religious actors under the law I am indeed speaking of constitutional democracies in which the law protects minorities against the tyranny of the majority.

      By the same token, the principle of full equality under the law carries within it a kind of self-denying ordinance for majorities. In Egypt, for example, that principle would provide the same opportunities in political life for minority religious groups as those enjoyed by the majority. Christian Copts could run for any office, including President, make religiously grounded arguments about Egyptian policies and laws on the same basis as Sunni Muslims, run religious charties, hospitals, colleges and homes for the aged without suffering legal disadvantages, and even invite Muslims to become Christians without legal penalty. Egypt is, of course, a long way from adopting such equality-based reforms, but if it fails to do so, it risks remaining a perennially unstable democratic polity constantly on the verge of collapse into military or theocratic authoritarianism.