Religious freedom is in the headlines again. From federal healthcare policies, to changing marriage laws in the states, to employer regulations on hiring, firing, and benefits, an array of recent government actions has many religious organizations alarmed, not just about the underlying policies themselves, but about their impact on the right of religious believers freely to practice their faith. Many see a growing strain of domineering secularism at work in American culture, one that has otherwise very different religious groups facing common pressures to discard, modify, or at least keep quiet about their religious beliefs and practices. This is why religious freedom remains most directly and self-evidently important to religious believers themselves. They have the most to lose if its guarantees do not remain strong.
But beyond the very real protections it offers specific people of faith, religious freedom plays another vital role in the life of a free society, a role that helps make possible the liberty of all its members, believers and non-believers alike. Religious freedom is not just a particular type of freedom; it is a critical source of freedom itself.
To understand why this is the case, consider what freedom requires. Most obvious is a healthy dose of negative liberty—the view that we should have the ability to live our lives as far as possible without undue interference by our government or our fellow citizens. This is what individual rights, limited government, and the rule of law aim to provide. They create a zone in which we can be authors of our own lives without being involuntarily subject to the overbearing power of others trying to force us to live or act or think in certain ways.
Of course, religious freedom is often a significant element in this negative understanding of liberty. It protects my right to practice my faith and share its good news with you, just as it protects your right also to embrace that faith, or another, or none at all. Religious freedom’s early champions played a key role in laying the foundations for constitutional democracy, and it is the first of the “shall nots” directed at the government in our Bill of Rights.
At the same time, however, religious freedom’s importance in understandings of negative liberty is not always so secure. As just one of many individual rights, it can get lost in the shuffle and minimized by those more concerned with other ones, as when the secular media, always protective of freedom of the press, show scant concern for freedom of religion issues. And some understandings of negative liberty, focused as they are on external threats to individual freedom, are more concerned with how religious practices might oppress or discriminate against individuals, often making them more sympathetic to religious regulation than religious freedom.
Fortunately, negative liberty is not the whole story. Individual rights and limits on government are necessary to freedom but not sufficient. There is more to freedom than just non-interference by others. If we are to be authors of our own lives, then we each need the ability to decide what kind of person we want to be and what kind of life we want to lead. The mere absence of external obstacles will not make us free unless we also have the internal capacity to be genuinely self-directing persons. This is why even great defenders of negative liberty such as John Locke also argue that an individual’s ability to act on that liberty is “grounded on his having reason.” This is why we don’t consider infants or those with severe mental disabilities to be fully free, or why we often refer to someone with a serious drug or alcohol addiction as being “enslaved” by it.
This internal dimension of freedom certainly requires the ability to reason, but there is more going on as well. It also requires what Charles Taylor calls “strong evaluation.” By this he means the ability to exercise self-control by subjecting our desires and goals to qualitative judgments. Reason alone can calculate how best to achieve our goals, but strong evaluation is how we determine what goals are worth pursuing in the first place. Doing so, however, requires moral standards upon which to base this evaluation—judgments about what is higher or lower, noble or base, laudable or despicable. Moral judgments of this kind are an inescapable part of freedom. Without them we cannot truly live our lives from the inside.
Taylor’s work reveals how human freedom is inseparable from our nature as moral agents. As human beings, we can’t do without some orientation to the good. It may not always be the right orientation, or we may not always live up to its demands, but it is necessary to living as free persons. I can’t decide what kind of person I want to be or what kind of life I want to lead without a moral language that makes sense of such decisions.
Here is where the internal capacity for freedom connects back to the external society around us. If we need moral standards to exercise the kind of self-evaluation, -control, and -direction that freedom requires, where do these standards come from? They don’t appear out of thin air. And while some may claim to live according to nobody’s standards but their own, this is actually impossible, for even this claim itself depends on moral ideas about autonomy and authenticity in the surrounding culture to make any sense. While we can make moral meanings our own, interpreting them, shaping them, combining them in different and sometimes even incoherent ways, we can’t invent them entirely from scratch in our own minds. Instead, we draw them from the particular cultures, communities, and traditions around us. These sources furnish the moral materials we need to construct authentic lives for ourselves as free persons.
The broadest, deepest, richest, and most important sources of these moral materials, both historically and today, are religious traditions. Even in the contemporary United States, religion remains the most significant source of moral reflection and orientation to the good that our society has. And here is the crucial thing: while the religiously devout certainly draw on this source, so too do others. Those with loose religious connections or no connections at all still participate in a social ethos rich in religious meanings. Even avowed atheists inherit a culture deeply informed by religious sources of morality, sources they often wrestle with in defining their own moral orientations. Religion’s abundant tide of moral ideas—on the nature of personhood, the just society, the good life, duties toward others, and so on—spills over for all to draw upon.
In order to perform this critical role in helping to furnish the moral materials necessary for freedom, religion certainly needs believers, but it also needs institutions where those believers are formed in the faith and put into contact with the wider culture. Churches, synagogues, and mosques; schools and universities; hospitals and clinics; newspapers, magazines, and websites; soup kitchens, adoption agencies, and drug treatment centers; youth camps, prayer groups, scripture classes, and social clubs: These are what cultivate and pass down the moral meanings embedded in religious traditions.
This, then, is why religious freedom is so important to freedom itself, including the freedom of those with little or no religious affiliation: It creates and protects a space in which religious voices can flourish, both individual and institutional. When civil society has a robust and vibrant religious dimension—when believers and their organizations can live their faith, worship, evangelize, and develop and communicate their own distinctive moral traditions—the public square is enriched. It becomes the site of religious traditions in moral dialogue with each other and the culture at large, a dialogue that helps create and sustain the moral language that citizens of all kinds require to construct freely meaningful lives for themselves.
So threats to religious liberty do not just harm individual believers. In seeking to corral, marginalize, and privatize religion, they endanger the health of religious institutions more generally, threatening to cut off a critically important source of moral reflection and orientation. This enfeebles rather than enlivens the moral content of our culture, a content that we all, believers and non-believers alike, rely upon to exercise our freedom.
David Carroll Cochran teaches politics and directs the Archbishop Kucera Center for Catholic Intellectual and Spiritual Life at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa.