Religious Freedom or Oppressive Religion?

On the 11th of May the New York Times ran an article with the following title: “For Ultra-Orthodox in Abuse Cases, Prosecutor Has Different Rules.” It reported that the ultra-Orthodox advocacy group Agudath Israel of America was instructing adherent Jews that they could report allegations of child sexual abuse to district attorneys or the police only if a rabbi first determined that the suspicions were credible. It was, as the article points out, a blatant challenge to the authority of the District Attorney. A series of laws and court rulings have established that the obligation to report suspected child abuse is absolute, and religious leaders do not have the freedom to make decisions on behalf of their organization or parishioners in this regard.

Not that Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel is doing something incomprehensible. He just wants to protect his community, which has its own ancient set of laws and court system, from unnecessary intrusions by what may well be seen as an alien culture and legal system. The problem is that this privilege of protecting a closed community from government law enforcement isn’t granted to anyone else. Catholics, Latter Day Saints, and every other group that tried to manage sexual harassment, child abuse, and other such crimes “in house” have all been forced to air their dirty laundry in public, just like businesses, schools and corporations. For the writers of the New York Times it appears that the Brooklyn District attorney is extending a privilege to the Orthodox that he doesn’t extend to other religious groups. But that’s mostly money and politics.

What about the more serious issue for religious communities? If your religious beliefs discourage or even forbid reporting co-religionists to outsiders, then isn’t it a violation of your religious freedom to force your members to report such crimes to the police? Christians might remember that Paul advises his church members to settle their disagreements among themselves rather than going to outside judges. And doesn’t it violate religious freedom to have the police, or other government agencies, watching how religious groups and their members behave?

At the center of these questions is whether human rights, and in particular the right to freedom of religion, belong solely to individuals, or also to religious groups. That is the question at the core of deciding whether the US government can mandate that certain religious groups provide health insurance. And it is the question at the core of whether religious leaders can act as gatekeepers in criminal complaints.

This in turn cuts to the core of what it means to be religious. While American theologians and sociologists talk much about the importance of community in being religious, our national ethos sees religion primarily as an individual matter. Religious communities are treated as secondary: voluntary associations of individually religious persons. That national ethos is a pragmatic response to the abuses of individuals by religious communities through European history, and the ways in which the most integrated and powerful of those communities continue that history of abuse right up until today. And it is a natural response to a belief in democracy as the best guarantor of human flourishing and freedom. Many traditional religious communities are ruled by self-perpetuating oligarchies and are essentially anti-democratic within themselves. Thus it may be that they are not environments conducive to full human flourishing. Historically American Christian denominations have struggled with just how much the value of democracy is a Christian value.

The modern state is an intrusive and overwhelming force. Even dangerous in its power. But in my view the modern democratic state has done a far better job of protecting human rights, and encouraging the well being of humans individually and in community, than most religious communities. That of course raises questions that are central to the ways that religious communities should organize themselves. It also suggests to me that if the Brooklyn DA wants to do what is best for his constituents he would be well advised to bypass their self-appointed religious leaders and hear from them directly. In the United States it is their right. It is his responsibility.

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