The Conundrum of Religious Liberty

There are two broad philosophies in religious liberty that are diametrically opposed to each other. The first philosophy is known as accomodationism and is often touted by conservatives. People who subscribe to this philosophy believe that America’s constitutional framework exists to keep the government out of religion and not the other way around. Legislation can be founded on explicitly religious grounds. Religious groups should have totally unfettered rights of free exercise. Therefore, apartment owners can discriminate against renters who do not live by their religiously motivated morals (whether it be homosexuals or unmarried couples). Religious organizations (or private citizens) can tailor their employees’ health insurance plans to restrict certain forms of coverage because they have religious compunctions about certain healthcare options. I assume people who believe this philosophy would also support a shop owner not serving African-Americans because he holds a religious belief that Blacks are inherently inferior.[1] Regardless, the goal of this philosophy is to protect the place of religion in the public square. Proponents of this philosophy often paint the picture of religion being attacked by a secular humanist society that is prejudiced against any religious belief. They are not totally wrong.

At the other end of the spectrum is a philosophy that is known as strict separationism and is usually supported by liberals. [2] Those who are supporters of this philosophy believe that the separation of church and state is a two-way street. If the state cannot be involved in the affairs of the church, then the church should not be involved in the affairs of state. Furthermore, the pluralism of American society makes religiously-based legislation problematic. Proponents of this ideology feel that individuals who have different religious beliefs (or no beliefs at all) should not be subject to the beliefs of Christians (or any other dominant religious group). Instead of following the dictates of the majority, as much space as possible must be given for those in the minority to exercise their beliefs as they see fit. Therefore, abortion should be allowed, regardless of any belief about when life begins. Gay marriage should be allowed despite its potential effects on society because the rights of the individual are sacrosanct. People who believe in this philosophy often paint the picture of religious fundamentalists who are seeking to turn this society into a Christian nation and deport anyone who does not agree. They are not totally wrong either.

As a Christian who leans more to the latter philosophy than the former, I see two conundrums that plague the liberal position. These conundrums are actually two sides of the same coin and plague not only the “liberal” Christian, but anyone who believes in the American democratic experiment. Those who believe in the strict separationist position claim to want everyone to be able to follow the dictates of their own conscience. This creates a particular problem. What happens when the dictates of one’s conscience tells them that they should do all that they can (including use the force of legislation) to get others to live by a particular set of moral values? Does that person get to live by the dictates of their conscience or do they have to sacrifice their conscience to the principle of freedom or anything else for that matter? For example, the Catholic Church has been criticized recently for not wanting to provide contraception coverage to their non-Catholic employees. The Catholic Church is simply following the dictates of their conscience that they should not subsidize the use of contraception because they believe that they are aborting life by doing so. Why should they have to sacrifice their free right to exercise their beliefs to those who disagree with them? The second conundrum is particular to those who are Christian. They believe in the separation of church and state not only because it is a good political philosophy, but in part because it protects the God given right of conscience. If this is true, then liberal Christians are guilty of the same crime of which they accuse their more conservative counterparts. They are seeking to impose a religious standard on others, just like conservatives. The only difference is that the religious issue is freedom of conscience as opposed to abortion or gay marriage. How can anyone resolve these seeming hypocrisies?[3]

Realizing that the conundrum cannot ever be fully resolved, there are some responses. First, if the American democratic experiment is based on freedom, then the goal of the nation should be the greatest about of freedom for the greatest number of people. I do not think that the conservative position achieves this end. For example, I am pro-choice, not because I believe in abortion per se, but because I realize that permissive legislation of choice in this area does not dictate that women have to get an abortion, and I do not think that I should decide for anyone what they should do with their bodies. I am pro-civil gay marriage, not because I have any particular stake in gay people marrying, but simply because I do not have any particular stake in what gay people do in their love lives, and neither does anyone else. I want the greatest freedom possible for the greatest number. The second response is related to the first. In order for any large society to exist, someone will have to give up freedom in order for someone else to exercise their own. The Christian apartment owner who is averse to homosexuals gives up their right to discriminate so that someone else can have a place to live. We cannot exist in community without people willing to do engage in this type of very personal generosity.[4] Where I think I differ from many of my counterparts is that in the close cases I am willing to sacrifice my freedom for others, in the hopes that in the close case against me they would be willing to do the same. That too stems from my view of God. After all, if Christ gave up His freedom for me, why can’t I do the same for others?



[1] They probably would not. However, this is the logical extension of the argument.

[2] It should go without saying that both of these broad designations are generalities and that people’s beliefs often are an amalgamation of these two concepts.

[3] I think it is important to note that the conservative conundrums revolve around the American democratic experiment. It’s very difficult to say you believe in American democracy but do not want to protect the rights of conscience of those who live by a different moral system than your own.

[4] Which is why the government at times will force this type of generosity on the polity.







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Sat, 10/25/2014 | Los Angeles Adventist Forum
October Adventist Forum
Ronald E. Osborn, Ph.D., A 2014-2016 Mellon Postdoctoral Fell ow in the Peace and Justice Program at Wellesley College (Boston), and a 2 015 Fullbright Scholar to Burma/Myanmar, Formerly an Adjunct Faculty Membe r in the Dept. of International Relations at USC, and in the Honors Progra m at UCLA. Topic: "Death Before the Fall?: A Conversation with Ronald Osbor n."

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