Religious freedom is self-contradictory?

February 2, 2010

Is too much religious freedom a bad thing? Can a liberal democracy really accommodate religious freedom? A long-standing argument that a country must have pretty much the same basic religion surfaces time and time again.

Over at the American Catholic blog , we read that

there is a built in contradiction in the place of religious freedom in classical liberalism: While religious freedom is a central element of classical liberalism, the ability of a state to function as a liberal democracy will collapse if a large majority of the population do not share a common basic moral and philosophical (and thus by implication theological) worldview. Thus, while religious freedom is a foundational element of classical liberalism, only a certain degree of religious conformity makes it possible.

This argument collapses simply by noticing that its author needs you to assume that a moral / philosophical worldview is the same thing as a religion. But that just isn’t the case. Morality is not the same as religion — just ask the many nonreligious people who manage to be quite moral all on their own.

If a democracy’s citizens all believe that everyone should have the freedom to practice their own religion, that belief is not a religious belief. It’s a moral belief, and if it is enshrined in a country’s basic laws, it is also a political belief. No shared theology or religion is implied at all.

The author does make a point that an immense moral chasm between two groups in a country will make governing impossible. The post continues:

If, however, there is fundamental disagreement among the populace about basic issues of right and wrong and what the purpose of the human person is, the victory of the other side will increasingly look to the defeated like an unacceptable tyranny, and the state will risk coming apart at the seams.

But this is just a theoretical point, without any substance. What actual fundamental disagreement is tearing this country apart? The author doesn’t say — yet we might now perceive a clue to what is really going on here.

Is this author speaking on behalf of fellow Christians? Maybe some Christians are feeling like they are suffering under an unacceptable tyranny, because they can’t agree with the basic moral and political convictions of a democracy. Such as keeping religion out of public governing, and keeping government out of private religion.

But that just means that such Christians don’t like liberal democracy, and not that liberal democracy suffers from some internal contradiction or imminent collapse. We may conclude that the foundations of liberal democracy remain (secularly) firm.