Wow, big flurry of articles on religious liberty, tied to the Supreme Court hearing Hobby Lobby this week. Over at First Thoughts, I offer a caution about something Rick Warren says in his op-ed, and Gabriel Rossman reveals the existence of a startling ancient legal document, recording the challenge of a “Jewish superstition that worships Christus” against the ancient “Lex Obama.”
More seriously, Peter Berger offers this stimulating reflection: In practice, religious freedom draws much of its support from businesses and other interests that stand to gain materially from it. Berger points to the government of China, which has somewhat relaxed its persecution of religious movements out of transparently mercenary motives; and also the emergence of a business-led coalition against apartheid in South Africa in which some actors were moved by an exogenous moral disgust at apartheid, but some saw apartheid as a threat to the bottom line.
Berger argues we should not be overly worried about building coalitions in favor of a morally desirable outcome in which many members of the coalition have mercenary motives. I agree, but have a few reservations about aspects of his analysis:
It is one thing to say that religious freedom is often good for business – and, more broadly, a well-functioning society. It is quite another thing to argue that religious freedom is systematically good in that way. And it is still a third thing to say that it is both systematically so and that it will be relatively easy for the business leaders and other interests that stand to benefit to see this. I cannot tell which level of claim Berger is making.
Obviously this is not a new question, but what especially moves me to raise it is the recent defeat of a very mild religious freedom statute in Arizona. The opposition did not really come from concerns that the law would overreach. It came from business leaders who feared they would be publicly targeted by gay rights activists if they did not use their pull with the governor to kill the law.
All of which is simply to say that while I think it is true that religious freedom is good for business and society systematically, it is only so on the whole and in the long run. And it is very easy for businesses and other interests to lose sight of the long run if they face painful losses in the short run.
This leads me to a broader concern about Berger’s piece. He sets up a very sharp distinction between supporting a policy like religious freedom for the sake of what he calls “principle” and supporting it for the sake of what he calls “results.” On some level such a distinction makes sense; I would not be willing to curse Jesus no matter what the results would be. On the other hand, in general and on the whole we must care about results if we care about principles, and (putting the shoe on the other foot) when people care about results they do so out of some set of principles that guides them.
We need not draw too sharp a distinction between wanting business to succeed and wanting morality to triumph. If we do, we risk reinforcing the already strong tendency of the culture to assume that businesses and societal interests do not have, and need not be expected to have, moral commitments. That kind of thinking is what produces business leaders who fear gay rights activists more than they support religious freedom.