Thoughts on Religious Freedom

Brother Daniel Haqiqatjou has written a few interesting pieces critical of the concept of religious freedom. In his most recent article on the subject, he argues that Western governments granted their subjects freedom of worship because the state’s increasing power and penetration meant that religion was no longer necessary for the maintenance of societal order. In other words, religious freedom exists in direct proportion to the power of the state.

The essay that Daniel cites as support for this proposition makes an important point: the concept of religious freedom did not gain currency in the West on the strength of liberal ideas alone, but as a result of the practical experience in attempting to enforce religious homogeneity.

Religion is no doubt a key component of social order, and polities throughout history have seen fit to enforce religious conformity as a means of maintaining that order. But in the 16th and 17th centuries, it began to dawn on some in the West that government enforcement of religious conformity tended to create more disorder than leaving people alone to worship (or not worship) as they pleased. For example, in a 1775 essay objecting to a proposal to establish a state support system for religious denominations in Virginia, James Madison wrote:

Torrents of blood have been spilt in the old world, by vain attempts of the secular arm, to extinguish Religious discord, by proscribing all difference in Religious opinion. Time has at length revealed the true remedy. Every relaxation of narrow and rigorous policy, wherever it has been tried, has been found to assuage the disease. The American Theatre has exhibited proofs that equal and compleat liberty, if it does not wholly eradicate it, sufficiently destroys its malignant influence on the health and prosperity of the State.

But religious freedom in America was not, as Daniel suggests, mere utilitarianism masquerading as principle. To explain that I have to explain what I mean by religious freedom, and how I think that differs from what Daniel means. And because there is a constellation of concepts implied by the term religious freedom, some related to principle and some related to contingent historical developments, it is better to avoid denouncing religious freedom as contrary to Islam or, for that matter, asserting without qualification that Islam supports religious freedom, without first clarifying what we mean.

Religious freedom as I intend it means the government ignoring the people’s religious life, allowing them to worship as they please and to conduct their religious affairs as they please. I do not mean that with religious freedom law must not derive from or harmonize with religious principles. Thus Roger Williams, the 17th century devout Baptist considered the father of religious freedom in America (and who was a dissenter from Puritan attempts to enforce conformity), held that government could enforce the “second table” of the Ten Commandments, which deal with man’s relation to man, but not the “first table,” which deal with man’s relation with God. If religious freedom meant that civil law must not derive from revealed law, then it would be legal to violate the Sixth Commandment (“Thou shalt not kill”).

It is critical to note that Williams was convinced that anyone who disbelieved in Christ was going to hell. He also believed, correctly, that it was not in the state’s job description, or capability, to force people to believe in Christ. Williams exemplifies the fact that in America, religious freedom was originally championed not by mocking secularists like Voltaire, but by deeply religious men and women who sought the right to believe and teach without government interference. Enlightenment enthusiasts like Jefferson could not have enacted laws establishing religious freedom without making common cause with these devout people. Thus religious freedom in America developed from religious convictions and not merely out of historical events, though as Madison wrote, such events confirmed the soundness of the notion that there exists a right to free exercise of religion.

Daniel is certainly correct in his point that the rise of the state has displaced religious institutions, and this is certainly a harmful feature of modernity. However, the expansion of the state and attendant contraction of religious institutions has no necessary logical or historical connection with reduced state interference in religious affairs.  On the contrary, the examples of France and Kemalist Turkey show that in many circumstances government meddling in religion increases as the state grows more powerful. Religious freedom does not equal secularism, at least in one of secularism’s many senses. Indeed, secularism often means the loss of religious freedom; in one of countless examples, see secular Austria’s recent ban on Muslim women veiling their face for religious reasons. In the Muslim world, modernity and the rise of the state meant the co-option of religious institutions such as the ulema and waqfs: again, not religious freedom.

Under the original American conception of religious freedom (as opposed to the European), religious institutions can and should play the role that government now arrogates to itself. This is actually an argument in favor of religious freedom, that is, of government contracting and staying out of the way of religion as it guides, serves, and nurtures people. Regardless of whether and to what extent this applies to an Islamic imperial polity (which in any event no longer exists), the Muslim minority in America can and should comfortably support this concept. Indeed, few Muslims would disagree with French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville, who visited America in 1805 and praised its religious freedom as well as its people’s commitment to religion:

“How could society avoid destruction if, when political ties are relaxed, moral ties are not tightened? And what can be done with a nation in control of itself, if it is not subject to God?”

 

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