What is Religious Freedom? A Brief Response

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints announced yesterday that it was initiating an effort to promote the freedom of religion.

Here is a video title “What is Religious Freedom?” released by the LDS Church that addresses the meaning of the freedom of religion and the current status of the freedom of religion.

A few quick points:

1. I found it interesting that the video provided two arguments or philosophical foundations for the freedom of religion. The first was the natural rights argument (John Locke). Freedom of religion is a “birth-right” that every person should enjoy. The second was a very Utilitarian argument (Jeremy Bentham). People are better off in terms of quality of life when they have freedom of religion. Now, I think this likely true but I am not sure if the quality of life is a result of the freedom of religion or because it is a concept which merely happens to be more prominent in the richer parts of the world. Either way, I enjoyed seeing both arguments present (though I do not think either one is a particularly sound theoretically).

2. I really like the video. It is very well done. I applaud any video that does not include overly long clips from General Conference talks. The one clip from a speech by a Church leader was brief and just included the audio clip.

3. The video emphasizes the need to respect everyones religion. In doing so, it refers to one of my favorite Articles of Faith: #11. “We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.” I agree fully with this. The video says that the freedom of religion should be valued by both religious believers and non-believers. I would add that we should also value the freedom to not be religious.

4. The video asserts that the freedom of religion is being eroded in the United States and elsewhere. Elsewhere, this may indeed be true. Look at some of the recent events in Syria and Egypt. But is the freedom of religions being eroded in the United States?

This last point is where the videos loses me.

How exactly is the freedom of religion being eroded in the United States? This may be pointing to gay marriage debates…but I am still not sure how that infringes on the freedom of religion. It might be referring to mandated birth control. Is the LDS Church opposed to this? Or is this just a shut out to Catholic allies on other social issues? Either way, it is a stretch to view such measures as infringing upon the freedom of religion, particularly given the governments willingness to accommodate religious institutions.

Religious voices against gay marriage lost the issue on legal grounds after first winning it in ballot initiatives. Still not seeing how this marks an erosion of the freedom of religion. Religious groups where able to mobilize and advocate. They submit briefs to the United States Supreme Court. They may not be winning the issue…but again…I am not seeing how it is a freedom of religion issue.

Indeed, we might be seeing a decrease in the influence of traditional religious voices in the public square but this in no way equates to religion being run from the religious square. Look at the attention Pope Francis is receiving on a range of issues. I admit, this might be because he is making gestures that the media and liberals (like me) agree with and appreciate. However, he is still making them on religious grounds and being celebrated for it. He is being welcomed to the public square. Heck, St. Peter’s Square seems to be in public square quite a bit lately.

I think that too many people are equating an overall decline in religiosity with a decline in religious freedom. From Robert Griffin III to Pope Francis to Roma Downey to Tim Tebow religious voices are still prominent in our culture, both in the public square and in popular culture. Maybe the change is not in the nature of the pubic square, but the nature of religion in contemporary society.

I am glad the LDS Church, my church, is addressing this issue. Freedom of religion is indeed very important. Of course, I am mostly excited because this means I will have even more reason to discuss John Rawls and Jurgen Habermas in the context of present day religion and politics.

Let us discuss religion and the public square. It is what I do. Shall we chat?

16 replies »

  1. I thought more about Obamacare than about marriage, to be honest. I know that Hobby Lobby, for instance, is challenging Obamacare’s mandate to provide for abortions, and how that effects their religious freedom as an employer who does not wish to provide for a practice that they view as deplorably unchristian.

      • Last I checked, the FDA labeling for the “morning-after pill” (Plan B or ella) said that these drugs work by preventing implantation of a fertilized embryo, which kills the embryo and to the people at Hobby Lobby is the moral equivalent of abortion. There is some science now to the contrary, which suggests that these drugs actually prevent fertilization, but it’s hardly idiotic of the Hobby Lobby folks to have believed what the FDA told them.

        • All the most recent studies on those pills find that they block fertilization, not implantation.

          But it turns out, at least when it comes to Plan B, there is now fairly definitive research that shows the only way it works is by preventing ovulation, and therefore, fertilization.

          “We’ve learned a lot about how these drugs work,” says Diana Blithe, a biochemist and contraceptive researcher at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. “I think it’s time to revise our speculations about how things might work in view of data that show how things do work.”[…]

          Blithe says studies have also shown that ella, like Plan B, doesn’t prevent pregnancy if a woman has already ovulated. Women who took the drug after ovulation got pregnant at the same rate as those who took nothing at all. She says that strongly suggests it does not have any effect on blocking implantation.

          The data on ella is less conclusive, but Plan B is not an abortifacient and ella is most likely not either.

        • Birth control and Plan B are legal in the United States, and the use of those drugs is between the patient and her doctor, not between the patient, Hobby Lobby, and said doctor. If you can refuse birth control, why not a heart transplant or antibiotics? If the Hobby Lobby doesn’t like Plan B the Hobby Lobby does not have to take that drug.

  2. I
    like that you pointed out both the good and the iffy in this video and
    corresponding news release. I actually like that the Church has
    released this. I just wish they had done so in a context where they had
    NOT gotten behind things like prop 8 in California.

  3. I
    might disagree, though, with the statement that “Maybe the change is not
    in the nature of the pubic square, but the nature of religion in
    contemporary society.” I think people are afraid to discuss religion in
    the public sphere,
    and that does hurt religious freedom. I think that people have
    difficulty understanding the difference between discussing religion or
    even demonstrating one’s own religion versus proselyting for a religion.
    It’s true that there are places proselyting should NOT happen (such as
    a public school classroom), but that doesn’t mean religion shouldn’t be
    discussed or a person shouldn’t be allowed to share their own religion.
    A friend of mine here at the college did a study of religious
    understanding at some of the local schools. It’s a pretty conservative,
    ostensibly religious area. The amount of ignorance regarding religion,
    including what people claim as their own religion, is pretty
    astounding. And I think dangerous.

  4. Nice post, Chris. Regarding natural law, I’ve been reading and thinking about bit about the relationship between that tradition and Habermasian/Rawlsian ideas, and I came across a very interesting-looking book that seems to argue for a fairly close linkage–basically that modern liberalism keeps natural law’s universalism, and drops the foundationalist metaphysics, or something like that. Below is a link to the intro, followed by a link to the book:



    • Thanks, Robert. I view natural right rhetoric as being very different from natural law. However, I know that Elder Cook and other member of the Church leadership have been heavily influenced by the conservative natural law theorist Robert George of Princeton Univ. (who is also affiliated with NOM and is on the Des News editorial board). Much of liberalism has a pretty strong foundationalist metaphysics, just not always one rooted in nature or God. For people like George (and Ralph Hancock) that is more or less the same thing as not having any grounding in metaphysics.

  5. Regardless of what one thinks of gay marriage I think the idea is that if you have religious objections you shouldn’t be compelled to adopt acceptance against your wishes. So I suspect they’d say the photographer in NM who wished not to photograph a gay marriage on religious grounds but was compelled by the state to be forced to was an imposition on their religious practices. With gay marriage proper I think the worry is that those sorts of impositions will become more common perhaps even requiring equal access within religious institutions.

    Now I think that’s ultimately making a slippery slope argument. But not all slippery slope arguments are bad. A lot of religious liberties are protected only because people care about them. As our community itself saw in the 19th century that kind of protection is largely at the whims of the masses and the masses are becoming far more secular and unsympathetic to religion.

    While I think Catholic hospitals should offer birth control as part of their health insurance I can understand why some people see that as committing a religious institution as part of a religious organization to do something against that religion’s views. The problem is really more the public/private divide. How public is a Catholic hospital and how private is it? A case could be made any institution that hires non-members is really public and thus no longer a religious institution any more.

  6. Chris, I think the point isn’t that same-sex marriage is itself contrary to religious freedom–indeed, it was religious groups wanting the freedom to perform same-sex marriages that put the issue on the map back when the mainstream gay rights movement mostly opposed the institution of marriage (for more detail on that, see the relevant chapter in Sarah Barringer Gordon’s “The Spirit of the Law”).

    Rather, the point is that the recognition of same-sex marriage will inevitably lead to conflicts between the resulting anti-discrimination norms and the claims to religious liberty of groups and individuals who disapprove of same-sex relationships for religious reasons. The recent New Mexico decision forbidding wedding photographers from turning down gay couples whose unions they disapprove of is only an early case in what will be decades of litigation in contexts such as education, health care, government contracts, professional licensing, tax exemptions, and so forth. The basic issue will be this: once society has decided that gay and straight are morally equivalent, how tolerant will it be of those who still disagree? (For more on these issues, see Douglas Laycock, Anthony Picarello & Robin Fretwell Wilson, “Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Liberty,” which is five years old now but I think remains the starting point for academic conversation on the subject.)

    To be clear, I don’t think that the religious should necessarily win all of these conflicts. But there are in fact conflicts, and it is likely that fewer of them will be resolved on terms hospitable to religion than I like. In other words, it is not at all unreasonable of the Church to warn about threats to religious liberty in America today–it is in fact quite consistent with current scholarship.

    • The basic issue will be this: once society has decided that gay and straight are morally equivalent, how tolerant will it be of those who still disagree?

      The real point is that gay and straight are legally equivalent, but that does not, to my mind, represent an erosion of religious freedom. There may be more people now that can’t be legally discriminated against, but anti-discrimination laws are not new and who is or is not exempt from following them hasn’t changed.

      • “The real point is that gay and straight are legally equivalent, but that does not, to my mind, represent an erosion of religious freedom.”

        Yes – my point exactly. As I put it above, same-sex marriage itself is not contrary to religious freedom.

        “There may be more people now that can’t be legally discriminated against, but anti-discrimination laws are not new and who is or is not exempt from following them hasn’t changed.”

        Here you’re wrong. Plenty of anti-discrimination laws are new, especially the ones concerning sexual orientation, and whether those laws will have exceptions and what their boundaries should be will be fought out in courts and legislatures for decades. If the boundaries of those exceptions become too narrow, it will significantly interfere with some people’s free exercise of religion.

        • Plenty of anti-discrimination laws are new

          Yes, but the idea that even religious people are required to follow anti-discrimination laws is not. That was my point.

  7. Glad to find another liberal sort of Mormon. Cyrious about Rawls; have only taught about him in Ethics. I’ll try to subscribe.

  8. Agreed. Some Christians like to pretend that they’re being imposed upon, but I’m not seeing it.

    True, Hobby Lobby is having its “right” to impose its religious beliefs on its employees infringed upon, but that’s a right only in their mind.

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