Religious Freedom as the Proving Ground for the Principles of Liberty

The principles of liberty come to the fore most strongly when one groups detests behavior that is central to the identity of another group. In my column “The Case for Gay Marriage is Made in the Freedom of Religion” I argued for the extension of our experience in guaranteeing freedom of religion to guaranteeing people the freedom to live their lives in relation to other dimensions of their belief as well:

Freedom of religion is a hard-won principle. In Europe, the wars of religion raged for over a century before the Peace of Westphalia  solidified freedom of religion for rulers in 1648. Freedom of religion for ordinary citizens was much slower in coming: the Bill of Rights to the US Constitution was a huge advance in that sphere….

The reason so much blood was shed before the principle of religious freedom was established is that it’s not a principle that comes naturally to the human mind. If a behavior or belief deeply offends God or the gods, then it doesn’t seem right to tolerate it. And if a behavior or belief will bring eternal damnation down on the heads of those involved (and those they might influence), then doesn’t the solicitous kindness of tough love demand doing whatever it takes to pull them away from that behavior or belief?

… gay marriage is itself an exercise of religious freedom. As many with good marriages know from experience, marriage is one of the most powerful paths toward spiritual growth. A good spouse helps one to see the aspects of oneself that one is too blind to see, and inspires efforts to be a better person. And when two human beings  know each other so well, and interact so thickly, the family they create is something new and wonderful in the world, even when there are no children in the picture. And for those who do choose to have children, but cannot bear their own biologically, adoption is a tried and true path.To those who would dispute that the freedom to marry the one person you love above all others is a matter of religious freedom, let me argue that if I am wrong that this is a matter of religious freedom, it is a freedom that should be treated in the same way. In his influential book A Theory of Justice (p. 220), John Rawls made this argument:

“This idea that arose historically with religious toleration can be extended to other instances. Thus we can suppose that the persons in the original position know that they have moral convictions although, as the veil of ignorance requires, they do not know what these convictions are. … the principles of justice can adjudicate between opposing moralities just as they regulate the claims of rival religions.”

Rawls’s point is that when something touches on a fundamental liberty—as the choice of whom to marry certainly does—people gain so much from that freedom they would not sell that freedom for anything. Imagine a time before you knew whether you would be gay or not—for many a time within actual childhood memory. Would you trade away the right to marry whom you choose for the right to prevent others from marrying whom they choose? No! Almost none of us would.

Religious liberty itself involves tricky issues. In particular, I know from my own experience as a believing Mormon during my first 40 years that for believers, religious leaders can easily have a sway over one’s thoughts and feelings that can make it hard to think straight. Freedom of religion can often mean the freedom of parents and other adults to bend children’s minds to a particular religious belief, and the freedom of religious leaders to bend the minds of adult believers. This means that children’s interests can be sacrificed to religious interests. But the alternative of putting the state in charge of children’s religious upbringing–even in a way that seems relatively neutral to those proposing it–is also problematic. 

Just as there is a value to genetic diversity, there is a value to religious diversity. But some of religions key aspects are collective. So is it OK to have groups of people who are very different from other groups, but that strictly suppress individual differences within the group, as long as this strict suppression is done in a nonviolent way?

Historically, the settlement we have made for religious freedom and for other core liberties is motivated by what it took to end the wars of religion. Since groups can make war much more effectively than individuals, our notions of religious freedom give substantial deference to religious freedom at the group level–including the freedom to bend the minds of children and others in a religious group’s orbit–not just individual religious freedom. This is not a perfect settlement, but religious war was worse. 

In the US, we are lucky to have a relatively stable tradition of religious liberty and Supreme Court to parse many of the trickiest issues in a way that is respected enough that whatever the decision is, does not seem to lead to much outright violence–with the single major exception of violence against abortion clinics. (On abortion, see my post “Safe, Legal, Rare and Early.”)

In the world at large, many many countries are grappling with the most basic issues of religious liberty, including having to grapple with what it takes to douse the flames of outright religious war. 

So for two reasons, it is well worth reading what John Stuart Mill has to say about religious freedom in the 7th paragraph of the “Introductory” to On Liberty: religious freedom in the narrowest sense is still a struggle to be won in many places in the world, and the idea of religious freedom helps clarify the principles of liberty in general.  

The likings and dislikings of society, or of some powerful portion of it, are thus the main thing which has practically determined the rules laid down for general observance, under the penalties of law or opinion. And in general, those who have been in advance of society in thought and feeling, have left this condition of things unassailed in principle, however they may have come into conflict with it in some of its details. They have occupied themselves rather in inquiring what things society ought to like or dislike, than in questioning whether its likings or dislikings should be a law to individuals. They preferred endeavouring to alter the feelings of mankind on the particular points on which they were themselves heretical, rather than make common cause in defence of freedom, with heretics generally. The only case in which the higher ground has been taken on principle and maintained with consistency, by any but an individual here and there, is that of religious belief: a case instructive in many ways, and not least so as forming a most striking instance of the fallibility of what is called the moral sense: for the odium theologicum, in a sincere bigot, is one of the most unequivocal cases of moral feeling. Those who first broke the yoke of what called itself the Universal Church, were in general as little willing to permit difference of religious opinion as that church itself. But when the heat of the conflict was over, without giving a complete victory to any party, and each church or sect was reduced to limit its hopes to retaining possession of the ground it already occupied; minorities, seeing that they had no chance of becoming majorities, were under the necessity of pleading to those whom they could not convert, for permission to differ. It is accordingly on this battle field, almost solely, that the rights of the individual against society have been asserted on broad grounds of principle, and the claim of society to exercise authority over dissentients, openly controverted. The great writers to whom the world owes what religious liberty it possesses, have mostly asserted freedom of conscience as an indefeasible right, and denied absolutely that a human being is accountable to others for his religious belief. Yet so natural to mankind is intolerance in whatever they really care about, that religious freedom has hardly anywhere been practically realized, except where religious indifference, which dislikes to have its peace disturbed by theological quarrels, has added its weight to the scale. In the minds of almost all religious persons, even in the most tolerant countries, the duty of toleration is admitted with tacit reserves. One person will bear with dissent in matters of church government, but not of dogma; another can tolerate everybody, short of a Papist or an Unitarian; another, every one who believes in revealed religion; a few extend their charity a little further, but stop at the belief in a God and in a future state. Wherever the sentiment of the majority is still genuine and intense, it is found to have abated little of its claim to be obeyed.