Dear friends of Istituto Acton,
Having just concluded this year’s edition of Acton University, my mind is overflowing with reflections on the current status of the free and virtuous society. More specifically on religious liberty and civic virtue, which was the general theme of the plenary lectures we heard each evening as well as the individual sessions I taught and attended.
This is no coincidence, as religious liberty has become the most prominent issue for American religious conservatives. It seems to be an updated form of “fusionism,” promoting a moral vision for society against the encroachments of the modern State and thereby uniting economic libertarians, social conservatives and advocates of a strong foreign policy (particularly when it comes to protecting religious minorities against persecution). What looked like a coming crack-up of the conservative movement under President Trump may have been granted a short reprieve and found a new banner under which to march.
Religious conservative are especially pleased with the US Supreme Court’s recent ruling that religious institutions cannot be denied public assistance when performing a public service. Non-Americans may be surprised that the denomination of the plaintiff, Trinity Lutheran Church in Columbia, Missouri, was irrelevant to its supporters, as was the particular issue of the re-paving of a playground of its daycare center. In this case, the State of Missouri had denied a grant to the church, citing a 19th-century “no-aid” provision in its state constitution, even though the center served the secular purpose of educating children. (Such provisions, sometimes known as “Blaine amendments”, instituted by Protestant majorities to prevent state funds from going to Catholic schools and are a remnant of nativist, anti-Catholic sentiment in the United States.) The Court’s 7-2 ruling in favor of the church allows for a more robust, institutional role for religion in public life, against one limited to matters of individual conscience, private worship and belief.
Most religiously-minded people want to live in a society that reflects their beliefs or at least a certain respectful attitude to “God-fearing” types and religion in general. Religion taken seriously cannot be content to remain a docile member of civil society like any other. A decent society ought to favor religion over irreligion, even if we have difficulty or conflict in determining what that religion is or should be. Majorities tend to preach unity, while minorities desire liberty. Yet as many of us at Acton have argued, such conflict is only heightened when combined with the power of the state; with state funding comes state control, something that churches and religious leaders should approach very carefully.
Church-State arrangements vary from country to country and are conditioned by history, politics and law. In Italy, I just signed over 0.8 percent of my tax bill to support the Catholic Church. I could have alternatively given it to the state for social assistance programs, the Greek Orthodox Church, any of several Protestant denominations, or a Jewish, Buddhist or Hindu union (contributions to mosques are not allowed, for the time being). Not surprisingly, the Catholic Church benefits more than the others. But fewer Italians are choosing to give their contributions to the Church, which may explain the proliferation in advertisements appealing for them.
In a traditionally Catholic country, the Church can expect to receive public funding without much interference or controversy. But as practice of the faith declines and immigrants arrive with other beliefs, there is increasing pressure to change the rules of the game. What had once been a cozy relationship can become an antagonistic one, with threats ranging from the symbolic (removing crucifixes from schoolrooms) to the substantial (legalizing abortion, divorce, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage).
There are different ways of evaluating religious liberty from a religious perspective. Less interference from the state is a positive, even if the burden of fundraising may not be particularly appealing to more high-minded pastors. On the other hand, consistency between the moral and civil laws of a nation is desirable; it may also lull people into complacency and an easy form of obedience to authority that could one day be turned against the Church.
The identification of religion and the state has led to religiously-based conflict between states, setting the groundwork for the strict separation not only of Church and State, but society from state, morality from law, economics from politics, value from fact, and many aspects of liberal democracy as we know it. Modern liberalism sought to solve problem of sectarian violence, and religious (as well as economic) liberty is a means to achieve this “regime of separations.”
As a result, religious pluralism has gone from something tolerated by the majority to something praiseworthy in the name of multiculturalism; pluralism has gone from fact to ideology, leading to “the dictatorship of relativism” where there is only my good and your good, never simply the good. Religious liberty was originally understood to be a liberal idea by both Church and State. In John Locke’s regime, toleration extends to everyone except the intolerant, i.e. those who claim to be the true Church or religion over all others. The American model of the disestablishment of religion and its free exercise create friendly competition rather than deadly conflict among religions. Religious sects that once persecuted each other are now all in the same boat captained the radical secularism of the State.
My Acton University lectures on liberation theology, distributism and Edmund Burke offered different perspectives on what is wrong with this state of affairs. The liberation theologians are the most explicit in calling for a revival of political theology and how our understanding of God and His love of the poor must shape society as a whole. Most liberation theologians focus their attention on Latin America but also Africa and Asia, i.e. the “peripheries” against the “centers” of power in the world. Distributists also wish to see a certain form of Catholicism (usually English) reign over all aspects of social life. Both are largely agrarian in outlook, distrustful of the accumulation of wealth and industry in large cities, and seek a deeper unity than North-American-style liberalism has to offer.
As the first conservative, Burke was a great supporter of liberty and authority, distrustful of abstract reasoning, universal solutions to particular problems and especially the French Revolution. What may appears contradictory to rationalists find their home in Burke: Irish Catholicism and English Anglicanism, American freedom and princely traditions in India under British rule, prudence and principle, party and patriotism.
For Burke, liberty must serve social cohesion and unity; he calls it “social freedom” and the “equality of restraint.” But where does this unity come from, what is its basis? Besides combining the “spirit of the gentleman and the spirit of religion”, Burke doesn’t say. Progressives let the historical process determine the future because they believe in humanity instead of human nature. Conservatives favor nature but are reluctant to speak about it very much.
Where does that leave us modern defenders of faith and freedom? The public funding of a church-run playground may be a step in the right direction but it’s a very little one. It’s a victory, though, something conservatives, from Burke on, have not enjoyed with regularity.