Here’s an interesting addendum to the discussion of religious institutions and modern society. Last week, Ryan Anderson posted a review of a new book (Why Tolerate Religion? by Brian Leiter) that claims the concept of religious freedom is unnecessary. Once we protect “freedom of conscience,” freedom of religion is superfluous. You couldn’t ask for a more clear illustration of the point I made in my last post:
The nones disallow the claims of our institutions to be what they are, not out of hostility but out of an inability to grasp that something important is at stake in those claims. They have no frame of reference even to understand the nature of our claim, much less to make that claim plausible.
Ryan spends most of his review taking apart Leiter’s naive and uninformed presuppositions about what religion is and what the typical religious believer thinks and does, as well as exposing his failure to consider some important counterarguments.
However, at the end of the review Ryan briefly attempts to offer a capsule version (one paragraph) of the constructive case for why we need both freedom of religion and freedom of conscience. That’s a tall order, and I don’t want to sound too critical, but I have to say I think he’s on the wrong track. Here’s what he says:
Both liberty of conscience and religious liberty ought to be protected. But conflating the right to religious liberty with a more general right of conscience fails to take into account the distinctive good involved with religion, and the ways it can be violated even when conscience is not. Many Catholics do not feel bound by conscience to attend Mass on weekdays. But a law that prevented them from attending, while not violating their rights of conscience, would violate their religious liberty rights. So, too, with the inner workings of religious organizations, their hiring decisions, their determinations of ministers and doctrine, and so on.
The problem with this approach is that the hypothetical law in question, banning attendance at Mass, does in fact violate the freedom of conscience of all people, even those whose consciences don’t tell them to attend Mass. If the law requires you not to attend Mass, your conscience is no longer free on that matter, even if your conscience doesn’t happen to require you to do what the law forbids. Thus Ryan’s example doesn’t really take us to the distinction between freedom of concience and freedom of religion. Ryan himself, earlier in the review, points out that the whole case for freedom of religion is that belief in religious truth is only valuable if it is uncoerced; the same is true for freedom of conscience.
Ryan does, however, start to open up the real heart of the distinction between freedom of concience and freedom of religion at the end of the paragraph, when he brings in religious institutions. As I wrote in my last post:
In the lawsuits over Obamacare, the administration has asserted the theory that a profit-making business or a hospital or a school cannot be said to exist primiarly for a religious purpose or mission. If the courts endorse this claim, Christianity has been made illegal. Christianity cannot be what it is if the total primacy of God’s claim on our lives and the mission he has given us in the world is not permitted to achieve institutional expression in all areas of life, rather than simply in churches narrowly defined. This is not to say that all Christians must attend distinctively Christian schools or work in distinctively Christian businesses; far from it. However, if the formation of such institutions is illegal, Christianity is illegal.
Looking forward to hearing what the rest of the HT team thinks!