RELIGIOUS FREEDOM: by Ryan MessmoreNews Weekly
What kind of religion is free in the public square?
, April 13, 2013
Australians will suffer ever greater curbs on their religious freedoms if they don’t heed the recent experience of the United States, warns Ryan Messmore, current president of Sydney’s Campion College. Late last year, he delivered the 14th annual Acton Lecture on Religion and Freedom, hosted by the Sydney-based Centre for Independent Studies (CIS). It was broadcast the following day on the ABC radio program, Religion and Ethics. This is an edited version of his address.
British missionary Lesslie Newbigin, an astute student of modern Western culture, claims that the “decisive feature of our culture” is the “division of human life into public and private” along with the “separation of fact and value”. That is, people in the West today tend to divide the world into two broad categories: a public domain and a private domain.
The public side is the arena of facts and pure, unencumbered reason. This is where the hard sciences reside — the arena of economics, politics and the natural sciences. This is where supposedly objective knowledge is achieved through the disinterested study of cause-and-effect. And this is where the supposedly neutral state operates with authority.
The private side is held to be the side, not of facts and reason, but of emotions, opinions and personal preferences. This is the “soft” realm of art, music and literature; it is where religion resides (for religion is assumed to deal not with logic but with values and faith). This is the subjective arena where personal notions about goodness, beauty and purpose are pursued. And this is where churches and families exercise their role (within the privacy of their homes and worship spaces — often called “sanctuaries”).
This dualism — between faith and reason, fact and value, religion and politics, science and the humanities — is the world in which the average Western citizen lives. This is the air she breathes. It is this split that helps explain why she turns on the news and hears political parties labelled in terms of “social justice” versus “family values,” or why her child at school can be marked wrong on a science exam but not on an ethics exam. (Many secondary schools in the United States can only evaluate students in such classes on how well they articulate their feelings or personal beliefs.) And it is this split that helps explain why many who use religious language in public debates are accused of doing something inappropriate — of smuggling foreign goods across a secure border.
This privatisation of religion is partly due to the forces of state power pressuring religious bodies out of the public square. But this phenomenon is also partly a result of changes in the understanding of religion itself, what some have called “an extraordinary redefinition of fundamental religious belief ... in the West”.
Whereas religion once had to do with the bonds and duties that tied people to God and to others in their community, today it is often used to refer to a set of interior beliefs about the individual soul and the afterlife. Stephen Carter, a law professor at Yale University, asserts that at the root of this process lies the widely held intuition that “religion is like building model airplanes, just another hobby: something quiet, something private, something trivial”.
As religion has become increasingly privatised, it has also become contracted in its focus. What the term “religious” refers to seems to have narrowed. Scholars have described this tapered focus in terms of therapeutic spirituality, where emphasis lies with psychological health and self-actualisation. According to theologian David Wells, what God is principally thought to offer believers in this new spirituality is relief from negative feelings like anxiety and guilt.
The key point is that, in many cultures today, people tend to understand religion primarily in terms of an individual’s insides and insights; they relegate religion to a private corner of life and associate it with only a certain sub-set of concerns, vocations and activities (like prayer, meditation, the afterlife, preaching, psychological counselling, and so on).
The privatisation of religion shapes views about religious freedom — what religious freedom protects and who should enjoy that protection. According to this view, religious freedom safeguards the ability for individuals to do things like pray, sing and listen to religious teachings. That is, it applies to activities that take place during special times and in special religious places — to what a Christian might do on Sunday in a sanctuary or what a Jew might do on Saturday in a synagogue.
But what about Monday afternoon in the workplace, school or hospital? Are people genuinely free to carry out their day-to-day activities and decisions in these arenas of public life?
Unfortunately, in the United States they are becoming less so. A recent Pew Research Center study ranked 197 countries in terms of the restrictions they place on religion. In the year ending in mid-2010, the United States moved from low to moderate levels of restrictions and was one of the 16 countries to experience increased levels of both government restrictions as well as social hostilities toward religion.
Furthermore, legal trends in the U.S. threaten the ability of institutions such as hospitals, schools and small businesses to operate in line with the teachings of their church. Within a privatised view of religion, these institutions and their employees aren’t readily acknowledged as being “religious” and thus worthy of legal protection.
In short, we are seeing play out in the United States today the situation that Lord Acton warned of over a century ago: a society in which “every man may profess his own religion more or less freely; but his religion is not free to administer its own laws”. Religious liberty is being weakened to a mere freedom of worship.
How is this playing out concretely in the United States today? As an example, consider the mandate dictated by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as “Obamacare”.
This mandate requires that all employers in the United States who offer group health insurance to their employees must cover abortion-inducing drugs, contraception and sterilisation. This includes the so-called “morning-after” and “week-after” pills and applies to employers regardless of whether they receive government funding.
Many have argued that this mandate violates the religious liberty recognised by the United States Constitution. The mandate forces many religious organisations to violate their conscience and the teachings of their church or be penalised. The critics of the mandate note that there is no way out for religious employers; either they comply and violate their religious convictions or they stop providing health plans altogether, whereby they face a different fine.
According to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, over 100 organisations and businesses, including over 30 universities, have joined 33 separate lawsuits against the HHS mandate. The plaintiffs are both Protestant and Catholic and include Wheaton and Biola Universities, Notre Dame, Belmont Abby and Hobby Lobby, as well as the Eternal Word Television Network.
The penalty for failing to comply with the mandate is $2,000-per-employee per year. So, for example, given that Catholic Charities employs 70,000 people nationwide, it would face a fine of $140 million each year. Hobby Lobby, a retail chain of arts and crafts stores, could face fines of up to $1.3 million per day.
In short, the HHS mandate hinders employers from remaining faithful to their church in the way they run their business. This is like the government telling kosher delis they must serve bacon or pay a penalty!
In addition to these arguments about violating the constitutional freedom of religion, I argue that the HHS mandate reveals troubling notions about the way the current U.S. Administration understands religion and religious freedom. This is most apparent in the mandate’s religious exemption. To be exempt, an institution must meet several criteria. It must:
• be classified as a tax-exempt, non-profit charity;
• have as its primary purpose the inculcation of religious values;
• primarily employ only those who share its faith; and
• primarily serve only those who share its faith.
Some have called this the narrowest religious exemption in United States federal law. I want to draw special attention to how this exemption assumes certain views of religion and the church.
First, this exemption reveals a heavily privatised notion of religion. For the sake of qualifying for the exemption, only certain kinds of institutions are considered “religious”. Churches, synagogues, mosques and monasteries make the cut, but religious hospitals, schools, orphanages and other charitable organisations do not — this despite the fact that the Bible declares “pure and undefiled religion” to include caring for orphans and widows in their distress (James 1:27).
It seems that the federal government is willing to safeguard religious freedom for groups that preach about Christian charity but not for groups that operate Christian charities. And why not? Because those charitable organisations tend to serve people in need without first stopping to ask their denominational affiliation.
Under Obamacare, not even Jesus and his disciples would be considered religious enough to qualify as “religious”. Nor would the Good Samaritan or Mother Teresa, for they did more than teach religious beliefs — they ministered to whoever was hurting in front of them, even if those in need didn’t belong to their church.
A more robust view would challenge the notion of a purely privatised religion. According to Paul Marshall at the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom, many believe that “religion is not a separate, isolated segment of human existence. It is not merely what people do with their solitude. It is not only acts of worship on a Sunday, or a Sabbath, or a Friday. It is not simply adherence to creeds or doctrines. Religion is one of the fundamental shapers of human life.”
Rather than a private hobby for home or the weekends, the major religious traditions in America and Australia teach that faith should be integrated into every sphere of activity, including work. This view holds that faithfulness entails more than just displaying religious symbols on one’s desk or praying with colleagues during lunch. Faithfulness also concerns the actual work people do and the decisions they make regarding how to run their businesses, including what health insurance packages to offer their employees.
A more robust approach to religious liberty is also aware of and resists the state’s attempt to absorb the proper authority and functions of other institutions. Such an approach recognises the importance of good government but does not concede to the state a monopoly of authority and presence in public.
Likewise, this robust view presupposes a social order in which religious communities do not assume the status of mere agents of the state. Churches and religious organisations (within my own Christian tradition, in particular) are not equivalent to the post office or the national parks and wildlife service, fulfilling some narrow function for the state.
Benefits of religious liberty
Even if a government fails to hold a robust view of religion, it can still benefit that government to protect, within limits, the ability of institutions to “administer their own laws”. Governments can require such institutions to do so in a way that upholds public peace and order and respects the rule of law. But within these broad boundaries, such freedom can be good not only for those institutions but also for the larger society and government.
I could mention how religious bodies not only minister to people of various need, but also model social solutions for other communities and societies. Or we could note churches’ capacity to shape individuals to enter, lead and serve in different stations in society, including politics. But the underlying point is that, to receive the benefits of this utilitarian relationship, governments need to protect what makes these institutions effective in the first place.
What makes them effective often has to do with their distinct identity and worldview, which is embodied in certain activities and practices. Such institutions, not to mention their practices, are not generated or created by government. Rather, they tend to come from the inner logic and convictions of the communities’ faith.
A government cannot penalise or restrict the particular practices or decisions of a religious group and then expect it to operate with the same motivation and potency. To borrow an image from C.S. Lewis, the state cannot castrate institutions of their faith-based elements and then expect the geldings to be fruitful for the state.
Australian policy-makers and citizens need to be aware of how certain notions of religion can be embedded in public policies. Even policies that sound favourable or desirable to religious groups — policies such as “religious exemptions” — can actually work to undermine the authority and public role of those very groups.
Echoing the concern that Lord Acton expressed over a century ago, Catholic theologian William Cavanaugh declares today that, “If religious freedom is merely the freedom to ‘go to church’ where you want, the church is not free to be who she is.”
Societies, even highly secularised ones, need to safeguard space for robust forms of religion and religious communities in their midst. Such freedom not only protects the integrity of churches and other institutions, but it also frees them to serve the common good in their distinct way.
Ryan Messmore is president-elect of Sydney’s Campion College, Australia’s only tertiary liberal arts college. For the past six years he served at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, as a research fellow in religion and civil society.
On October 23, 2012, Ryan Messmore delivered the 14th annual Acton Lecture on Religion and Freedom, hosted by the Sydney-based Centre for Independent Studies (CSI), broadcast the following day on the ABC radio program, Religion and Ethics. This is an edited version of his address. The full version may be found at: