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Freedom of Religion, Freedom for Religion


In his 2014 book, Understanding Liberal Democracy, the philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff distinguishes between two sorts of religious freedom: freedom of religion, and freedom for religion. Freedom of religion is a freedom to practice distinctly religious activities: it encompasses things like the freedom for citizens to engage in religious activities, to establish religious institutions, and to induct their children into these religious activities and institutions.

Freedom for religion, on the other hand, is the freedom to participate in secular activities in a distinctly religious way. So whereas freedom of religion concerns distinctly religious practices like performing a liturgy or partaking of the Eucharist, freedom for religion concerns activities which are not distinctly religious but which can be practiced in a “distinctly religious way” — think education or scholarship or political discourse. Wolterstorff mentions two different forms that freedom for religion may take. The first is the freedom to establish faith-based institutions which enable the religiously distinctive performance of some secular activity— e.g., Christian or Jewish day schools. The second form of freedom for religion is the freedom to participate, “in a religiously distinctive way in the secular activities sponsored by an organization or institution that is not faith-based, one that is secular or pluralist.” As examples of this latter sort of freedom for religion, Wolterstorff mentions the pursuit of distinctively Christian scholarship at a state university, and the giving of distinctively Jewish reasons in public policy debates. We could add multitudes of examples of our own: the distinctively religious practice of medicine, the distinctively religious practice of business ownership, the distinctively religious practice of agriculture, and so on.

Wolterstorff argues that the former sort of religious freedom—freedom of religion—enjoys substantial legal and popular support in the United States. The situation for freedom for religion, however, is less consistent and less congenial. When it comes to faith-based organizations, the general pattern in the United States is that citizens are free to form them, but that these organizations, unlike their religiously “neutral” counterparts, are not able to enjoy government sponsorship or support. (This as opposed to standard policy in the Netherlands, where if one, say, food bank receives government support, every other food bank—whether secular or religious—is entitled to government support.) And when it comes to the freedom to participate in secular or pluralistic institutions in a distinctively religious way, the situation is even more mixed. Teachers in elementary or secondary public education, for instance, are legally prohibited from teaching in a religiously distinctive way; the freedom to participate in that way is not open to them. But, as Wolterstorff points out, the same is not true of education at the next level up: religiously distinct education at a state college may be frowned upon, but it is not illegal. (At the same time, however, there is limited support to be found in the general public for tax dollars funding religiously-distinctive scholarship in the University. And remember, legal obstacles are not the only obstacles to freedom— public, institutional, or peer, pressure can be at least as powerful.) The upshot of Wolterstorff’s discussion: freedom of religion is generally well received in the United States; freedom for religion is not.

Why the discrepancy? Why the general support for the former sort of religious freedom, and the contestedness of the latter?

Religion is conceived by a great many Americans as a phenomenon which belongs to the realm of private devotion or within the walls of a church; it is unintelligible (or at least very silly) to talk about religion in the public square. Now notice that this distinction between the private realm and the public realm tracks with the distinction between freedom of religion and freedom for religion: the former sorts of freedoms are freedoms to practice religion at home or at church (the private realm), and the latter sorts of freedoms are those which extend into the public realm (schools, politics, businesses, etc.).

If a great deal of Americans really do conceive of religion as a private phenomenon, then it should be no surprise that a great deal of Americans would extend their blessing to freedoms of religion, but not to freedoms for religion. If one can’t see that religion has genuine application to the public realm, then of course one won’t see freedoms for religion as robust social and political goods.

That line of reasoning, I think, makes up part of the explanation for why freedoms for religion are so contested. It is also why I’m concerned that those of us who are interested in securing a wide range of freedoms for religion, on top of freedoms of religion, face a steep uphill climb. If we talk of “religion” with those who attach a very different concept to the term, we can expect not to be heard. Or at least not to be understood.

And so one part of me is drawn to a different strategy altogether: Drop the talk of “religion” and find some real common ground upon which to defend religious freedom. Piggyback on talk of “freedom of conscience”, perhaps, and treat religious freedom as a species of freedom of conscience. Combine this talk of “conscience” with talk of “autonomy” and “authenticity”— two concepts near and dear to the heart of American popular morality. Make one’s religious practice out to be a manifestation of one’s faithfulness to one’s true self. Just don’t use the term “religious practice” when doing so.

On the whole, this alternative strategy, despite its advantages (real common ground!), might be even more imperiled than the religion-qua-religion strategy.

Try standing on the shoulders of “autonomy” and “authenticity”. It’s not at all clear that this talk gets us beyond the private realm any better than talk of “religion”, which is to say that it’s not all clear that this talk will help secure the more-elusive freedoms for religion. Think, for instance, of appealing to authenticity and autonomy as justification for the creation of a Christian or Jewish day school. It’s hard to imagine that inducting children into a particular tradition could be held up as a triumph of authenticity, especially since almost every child would be attending these schools at the behest of his or her parents and not out of his or her own free choice. In fact, it’s reasonable to think that allying with “authenticity” and “autonomy” could lock religious freedoms into an even smaller box, that it would potentially threaten the status of freedoms of religion. After all, it’s not that far of a move from losing one’s justification to induct children into a particular tradition at school to losing one’s justification to induct children into a particular tradition at home.

Making freedoms for religion out to be species of freedoms of conscience has, perhaps, a bit more promise. But there are still plenty of dangers here, one of which is that this strategy would likely mean giving up the special place that religious commitments ought to hold in the vast panoply of subjective commitments. It would become harder to press for the priority of religious commitments over any other commitment. And that, for the proponent of a robust religious freedom, would be a serious loss. There is supposed to be something special about religious commitments— and historically there has been. What other subjective commitment receives explicit mention in our Constitution?

And so, we are left with a dilemma: defending religious freedom on the basis of religious reasons or defending it on the basis of non-religious reasons (autonomy, authenticity, and freedom of conscience being candidates).Which horn should we grab? I suppose the (unmentioned) third option in which we stop reinforcing the popular conception of religion as a private, compartmentalized phenomenon. Where we make it impossible for “oh, you’re religious” to be synonymous with “oh, you go to church”. Where our faith interfaces with the public arena through means other than a graphic tee or a bumper sticker. It might be that we’ll have to take religion seriously before others will take seriously the word “religion”. It might be that the only way for us to secure the freedom to practice our religion is for us to bust our backs practicing it.

[This post has been updated to reflect the correct author. David Clark, not Isaiah Berg, wrote the piece]

David Clark

David Clark is a farmer, teacher, husband, and father from New England.