Why Religious Liberty Cannot Prosper without Economic Liberty

Why Religious Liberty Cannot Prosper without Economic Liberty August 23, 2016

By Jay Richards

cover_oneIn recent years, religious freedom in the United States has been treated by its defenders as a special form of freedom distinct from, say, political or economic freedom. This is not a viable long-term strategy for protecting religious freedom.

Both economic and religious freedom tend to exist together in the same societies; they are both based on the same principles; they tend to reinforce each other; and over the long haul, they arguably stand or fall together. As a result, when Christians surrender economic freedom, they unwittingly surrender their religious freedom as well.

Our most important ideas are often the ones we take for granted; the unstated premises that inform as if by an invisible hand our conscious thoughts and deliberate actions. Because of the way religious freedom has developed and has been purified by history, it is easy for Americans to dwell blissfully in the branches of the tree of liberty and forget entirely the roots that anchor the tree to the ground.

We take it for granted that in matters of religious faith people should not be coerced. We assume that religious and political institutions should be separate. Indeed, most Americans think that true religious faith requires the exercise of freedom. We assume that that which is compelled is not true faith but mere pretense.

Few of us can articulate the original source for these convictions. I suspect this is because the theological premise that justifies it has become buried out of sight in the moral intuitions of even those who reject it. Thomas Jefferson summarized the premise as well as any when he wrote in the Declaration of Independence that we are endowed by our Creator with certain “unalienable rights,” such as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” If human beings have such rights by virtue of our divine origin, if we are the kind of creatures that ought to be accorded respect and given wide jurisdiction over the sorts of beliefs we affirm, then it follows that in certain matters, including but not limited to religion, no one should be coerced.

The American founder George Mason made the point lucidly in his draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776), a document that later became the model for the United States Bill of Rights. He wrote, in part, that “religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity toward each other.”

Note that religious freedom here is not justified by relativism — the favorite but faulty argument of sophomores — but by reference to religion, by which Mason means the duty that each of us owes to God. The basis for religious liberty is itself religious.

George Mason, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and other American founders did not think they were invoking a parochial custom that they picked up from their European heritage. They claimed, rather, that these rights were universal, and that if one understood the truth about man, then one would simply see by reason that such rights obtained. They even went so far as to claim that the rights to life and liberty were self-evident.

Besides this commitment to the universal rights of man, the American founders were acutely aware of past religious conflicts, not just in far-away England but in the early American colonies as well. Although the founders were theologically diverse, they all believed that the existence of both a Creator and the moral law could be known by reason and should inform our legal and political lives. At the same time, they thought questions concerning the trinity, the proper form of baptism, church government, and the like were sectarian rather than strictly public concerns.

These dual convictions led them to a position perplexing both to modern secularists and to those who assume the founders meant to establish a Christian republic. The founders affirmed the public expression of religious faith and its importance to public morality while refusing to establish a national religion. Instead, they opted for widespread religious liberty, which meant that citizens could bring their religious convictions into the public square.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution captures their balanced approach: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” A just and limited state must recognize domains and institutions outside its jurisdiction. Such “prepolitical realities” include, most prominently, the right of every human being to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The right to liberty, in turn, implies a right to free speech, to freedom of association, and to freedom of religion.

By economic freedom, I refer to the social condition in which individuals, families, and associations enjoy the rule of law, respect for their rights, limited government, a vibrant civil society outside the jurisdiction of the state, well-delineated rights to private property and contracts, and broad discretion on economic matters. If it is easy to start a business; to seek employment; to hire employees without invasive dictates from political authorities, private cartels, or organized crime; to negotiate salary, benefits, and responsibilities; to have fair contracts enforced; and the like, then a society enjoys some measure of economic freedom.

The philosophical basis for religious freedom rests on the same foundation as the case for economic freedom: individual rights, freedom of association and the family, and the presence of a government with limited jurisdiction.

Economic freedom just as much as religious freedom requires limited government: a “government limited by laws.” The government helps create and maintain the public space (along with other institutions of civil society) in which free economic decisions can be made. Economic freedom exists on a spectrum between anarchy at one extreme and statism on the other. A society in which the strong are “free” to prey on and enslave the weak is not economically free. Neither is a society free when all economic decisions are made by political fiat.

Because the economic and religious realms involve man as an individual, as a member of a family, and as a member of society, it is unrealistic to imagine that we can cordon off our religious liberty from our economic liberty.

An environment in which economic liberty is enjoyed is one in which religious liberty is likely to be enjoyed and vice versa. It is a virtuous circle. Similarly, in environments where our economic liberty is restrained, either by the state or by general lawlessness, our religious liberty is likely to suffer as well. This is a vicious circle.

If that is the case, then, if we wish to preserve religious liberty, what we need are robust defenses of both economic and religious liberty, framed in a way that makes it clear that these two liberties, these two freedoms, are mutually reinforcing and indivisible.

Jay W. Richards is assistant research professor in the School of Business and Economics at the Catholic University of America. This commentary is excerpted from newly released Acton Institute volume, One and Indivisible: The Relationship between Religious and Economic Freedom.

This excerpt originally appeared at Acton Commentary.


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