July 8, 2024

The Role and Extent of Religious Liberty

By: John Tuttle

The goal of the following article is to establish a clear understanding of the role of any religion that motivates us to love and help others and the necessary limits of religious liberty in regards to community. Freedom for faith is a God-given right, but it doesn’t grant us the liberty to do whatever we want at the expense of others’ well-being.

To accomplish this goal, I draw upon my own beliefs in the Catholic tradition. The reader should be aware that through the ages Catholics have been both the victims and perpetrators of religious discrimination. My appreciation of religious freedom stems not only from the personal interest I have in pursuing and practicing my faith but also in the ideal of realizing a mutual respect for people’s ability and duty to discern their actions and follow their consciences. People should be permitted to do what they think is best, provided it doesn’t harm someone else.

A person shouldn’t be a slave to an ideology. They freely choose their beliefs. It is wrong for someone to be forced into claiming convictions that aren’t their own. Holding the “infidel” at gunpoint, threatening a person with expulsion from their home, or mandating “captive audience” meetings for employees are all invasive and coercive maneuvers that do not uphold the inherent free will of a human person. Let’s look at some instances of discrimination, the opposite of religious liberty.

What Religious Liberty Does Not Look Like

Religious practice does have its limits. Amendment I of The Constitution protects our inherent rights of freedom for the exercise of religion, freedom of speech and of the press, and freedom of assembly. In other words, it protects our right to express ourselves. But this comes with necessary guardrails. When zealots, political or religious, propound with force an ideology riddled with hate speech, threats, or physical brutality, the law needs to protect citizens from harm.

This gets messy since, as history shows, such zealots have represented the government itself in some countries. And, in our own day, the questions of what counts as hate speech or as being dangerous make for a perpetual battleground, much like the questions regarding censorship. But, for certain, we can see that religious freedom cannot be the freedom to abuse others. 

Leaders have, for religious and racial reasons, or under the guise of pious pretenses, perpetrated abominable discrimination against minorities. A few weeks ago (June 22-29, 2024), the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops promoted “Religious Freedom Week”  Celebrated annually, this is a week to be thankful for the religious freedom enjoyed here in the U.S. but also to take into account all the ways in which religious freedom can grow — both on our own shores and abroad.

Among the people the bishops asked the faithful to pray for during this year’s Religious Freedom Week were immigrants, working moms, and religious minorities in India. Info on the USCCB’s website states that the Indian government has, since 2014,

…promoted a Hindu nationalist ideology (Hindutva) so that to be Indian is to be Hindu. Consequently, Muslims (about 14% of the population), Christians (slightly over 2%), and other religious minorities face discrimination and find themselves under attack. A civil society organization reported a four-fold increase in attacks against Christians between 2012 and 2022. In the state of Manipur, the minority Christian population has faced harassment and attacks at the hands of Hindu nationalists. Since May 2023, around 300 churches have been set on fire, and 100 other buildings belonging to Christian groups have been destroyed. Around 50,000 people have been displaced by the hostilities.  Hate speech, particularly against Muslims, is on the rise and violence is committed against minorities with impunity as police do little to protect those being persecuted and may actually participate in the attacks.

For a long time, we’ve known about China executing and mistreating the Uyghurs, the Xinjiang region’s Muslim minority. On the other hand, for centuries, certain Muslim groups have made dhimmīs (non-Muslim residents of an area under Islamic rule) pay a jiyza, or tax, to guarantee residents’ safety. Jihadist Muslims are militant to many “infidels,” including other Muslims who do not share their beliefs. A modern example: In 2014, the terrorist group ISIS, notoriously cruel to Shiite Muslims and to Christians, offered non-Muslims in Mosul, Iraq, three options — conversion, jizya, or martyrdom.

Such demands are reminiscent of the Inquisition in Spain (1478-1834) during which Jews and Muslims were forced to convert to Catholicism or be expelled from the country. Even in our own time and in our own country, though it’s not nearly as extreme as execution or exile, we have religious obligations forced upon us. In my home state of Illinois, this spring’s General Assembly voted on legislation that, if signed by Governor Pritzker, would ban“captive audience” meetings regarding religion and politics in the workplace.

These mandatory “captive audience” meetings might have a religious, political, or anti-union agenda. (My imagination runs wild and envisions an impromptu meeting led by Michael Scott.) The way I see it, the proposed Illinois law would help establish conscience protection. Important figures from my own faith tradition like Thomas More and Charles de Foucald agree that people have the right to follow their free will and the dictates of their conscience. This bill would not only protect an employee from retaliation if she skips the meeting; it would uphold her right to follow her conscience. Just as someone, due to religious (or any other) convictions, has the right to forego taking a vaccine, someone has the right to forego listening to something they don’t believe in. The law would not eliminate a business’s ability to hold open conversations about religion and politics, but it would give each employee the choice to attend or not. This is a step in the right direction.

The government can be a help or a hindrance to our religious liberty. For centuries, Europe was Christian. We witnessed the union of Church and state. Sometimes this situation worked out, but more often than not it led to abuse of power, the selling of offices, and political figures appointing the churchmen they wanted in a particular role. This made the religious leaders political figures too, and they grew greedy for power. When religious leaders are employed in secular positions, they often become more focused on worldly things, not matters of faith. Then, pretty soon, the moral (religious) principles the government, once upheld, are undermined for more political power.

I’m a fan of the divorce of Church and state. What does this mean? It means clergy do not become politicians, and government leaders do not get to choose who becomes the next bishop. It means clergy and church-goers are subject to secular laws, and the Church’s beliefs can influence laws and voting tendencies. If a member of the clergy has committed a grave crime, then he should face the legal ramifications of both the state and his Church. At the same time, so long as one’s religious practice does no harm and contributes to the good of the community, the government should not impede the practice of the faithful — in public or private.

However, there is a brighter side to religious liberty where the practice of the faithful impacts the culture, even the whole country, for the better. Let’s see what true religion looks like in the public square. 

What Religious Liberty Does Look Like

Religious Freedom Week isn’t just to look at all the work we have left to do but, just as importantly, to celebrate how our religious traditions have made us better people and a stronger nation. Many of the earliest explorers and immigrants to the American continents came in search of fresh air free from the prejudice of European laws that stifled certain sects of believers from practicing. Like Moses and the Israelites heading out of Egypt into the Promised Land, these adventurous souls sought a place where they could worship God without fear.

Our founders thought pretty highly of faith. They even thought well enough of it from the days of the earliest roots of the proverbial Liberty Tree that they safeguarded the right to practice free from fear. Christian, or at least monotheistic, principles made their way into the fabric of our national identity. Christian morals informed our country’s earliest understanding of justice. To this day, our legal tender bears the mantra, “In God We Trust.”

In his 1796 Farewell Address, George Washington said:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them…Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice?…Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.

I agree with our first president. Religion and morality are some of the cornerstones of our nation. These building blocks have been sources of comfort and social progress throughout our history. I call to mind a local Walk for Life and Family I attended in order to defend the rights of the handicapped, the vulnerable, and the unborn in the womb. Not only do I think we were promoting a good cause. The experience was also ecumenical; it was unifying. Catholics, Lutherans, and Baptists worked and prayed together outside city hall.

Again, I’m reminded of another march for human rights that took place on a larger scale at our country’s capital. It included ministers and laypeople. It was 1963, and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the March for Jobs and Freedom, where he also gave his now famous “I Have a Dream” speech. An archbishop, a Catholic speaker, and several rabbis accompanied him in praying and speaking at the Lincoln Memorial. This was another bold ecumenical moment, and historians admit the Civil Rights Movement as a whole is indebted to its deep religious roots.

The 2023 findings of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty’s annual Religious Freedom Index showed that 59% of Americans think religion is part of the solution to our country’s problems. Religion, when it fosters charity and unity, can help bring this tearing country back together. If religious conviction could help make the USA. stand on her own at her founding, perhaps it can now help make her well.