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The Consequences of Religious Liberty

I usually steer myself away from political topics here. Partially because it’s a bit outside our normal wheelhouse, partially because I’m just sick to death, after over a decade of living in the DC Metro area and being a political conservative with a microphone, of talking about any of it.

But the religious liberty issue continues to creep its way into our lives in ways we may not be able to ignore for long. From the rise of claims on civil liberties by pagan or satanic groups to the attempts to force acceptance of immoral behavior down the throats of Christians at the barrel of a (litigation) gun, this is not going away. Conversely, consideration needs to be given to allowing full religious liberty to supremacist ideologies like Islam that fundamentally want to see everyone who does not believe as it does subjugated, converted, or killed. The ramifications are far-reaching.

Aside from some dalliances in analyzing the works of Fr. John Courtney Murray, Orestes Brownson, and Alexis de Tocqueville back in college (about two decades ago, if I’m being honest) I am and have remained woefully undereducated on the mind of the Church on these topics. I’ve watched with some interest the debates over integralism playing out in the public sphere; lent a cautious voice in opposition to some of the more agressive recent pushback we’ve seen from more libertarian-leaning Catholics to Pope Pius IX in the Mortara affair, and have, in general, seen the necessity of coming to grips with what unfettered religious liberty and pluralism lead to before the disaster comes into full bloom.

But I do not feel qualified to really opine in any depth. I’m just not there, and finding the time to read more about it — things, for example, like the essays of Thomas Pink — has proven challenging. Too many things going into my head, not enough bandwidth.

The reason I bring this up is that this morning I read an article by Sohrab Ahmari at Commentary that returned to this question in light of the recent US Supreme Court decision on the Masterpiece Cakeshop. As you’ll recall, this was the case where a Christian baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a “gay wedding” led to him being found in violation of Colorado state anti-discrimination laws. The SCOTUS decided this month, by a significant majority — 7 to 2 — that the civil rights commission who had charged the baker had run roughshod over his First Amendment rights.

But Ahmari urges caution, and I can’t help but agree:

When the celebrations are over, though, the religious right must resolve the bigger questions facing it.


The majority holding turned on the overtly anti-religious and anti-Christian animus displayed by some members of the state commission. Those sentiments, which were never retracted by the commission, meant to a majority on the Supreme Court that Phillips didn’t get a “neutral” hearing. Had the commissioners kept their hatred of traditional Christianity close to their chests, would Justice Kennedy and the liberals on the court who joined him have ruled differently? Quite likely.


I do wonder whether religious freedom, without more, suffices to protect faith and tradition in the public square. More libertarian-minded conservatives hope that the answer is yes: that by fighting tooth and nail for religious freedom, Christians and other social conservatives can strike a sort of cold peace with secular liberalism.

But as the Phillips case showed, the inner logic of today’s secular progressivism puts the movement continually on the offensive. A philosophy that rejects all traditional barriers to individual autonomy and self-expression won’t rest until all “thou shalts” are defeated, and those who voice them marginalized. For a transgender woman to fully exercise autonomy, for example, the devout Christian, Muslim, or Jew must recognize her as a woman. People of faith and others who cling to traditional views must publicly assent to what they don’t believe.

Reducing traditional beliefs to a matter of religious freedom carries other risks. It allows progressives to frame traditional positions, which are rooted in reason and natural law, as a kind of idiosyncrasy or superstition. As Archbishop Charles Chaput noted in his 2016 book, Strangers in a Strange Land, “If they’re purely religious beliefs, then . . . they can’t be rationally defended. And because they’re rationally indefensible, they should be treated as a form of prejudice. Thus two thousand years of moral truth and religious principle become, by sleight of hand, a species of bias.”

Boiling this down, I’d say the gist of his warning is this: the inevitable consequence of religious liberty is that “people of faith and others who cling to traditional views must publicly assent to what they don’t believe.”

And yet Ahmari’s conclusion, rather than following the course this logic takes, snaps back to a dogmatic view that religious liberty is just what’s best for everyone:

Defending traditional morality on the basis of religious liberty alone, in other words, risks cornering religious conservatives in the long-term. The alternative, of course, isn’t to give up on religious freedom. That defensive battle must continue to be fought. But religious conservatives should also go on the offensive and once more formulate a substantive politics of the common good.

This makes zero sense to me. If religious liberty truly means a level playing field where all beliefs must be held in equal esteem, how do we go on the offensive? What are the rules of the game? How can we say that some beliefs are damaging and some are conducive if all are legitimate expressions of human freedom? What must we do in a system where respect must be paid to all but many fundamentally and passionately disagree on what is moral and what is not? Is religious liberty something Catholics should really support? If so, should they support it only conditionally? Where do we go from here?

I don’t see a way out of the dilemmas we face, even though Ahmari says that “religious conservative have answers” to them. The answer is, and was, as far as I can see, confessional states with limited religious tolerance. As Pope Pius XI so eloquently stated in Quas Primas:

With God and Jesus Christ,” we said, “excluded from political life, with authority derived not from God but from man, the very basis of that authority has been taken away, because the chief reason of the distinction between ruler and subject has been eliminated. The result is that human society is tottering to its fall, because it has no longer a secure and solid foundation.”

When once men recognize, both in private and in public life, that Christ is King, society will at last receive the great blessings of real liberty, well-ordered discipline, peace and harmony.

But I don’t see any way to get there from here, and while LARPing about a return to some sort of Christian monarchy is all the rage these days, the catalyst we’d need to set our feet on that path seems to me to be nothing less than a total societal reset of cataclysmic proportions.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not super enthused about such a prospect, whether a good housecleaning is necessary or not. It’s nice for my children and me to be able to get up every morning and enjoy running water, electricity, a stable food source, and non-apocalyptic anarchy that looks something like a 21st century suburban version of Mad Max. (I wonder how Cadillac Escalades look with spikey armored plates?) I see people pining for the house to burn down, but I don’t think many of us were forged in a time that would make us likely candidates to thrive in the elements we’d be exposed to.

I’m just spitballing here, but my gut tells me the religious libertarians are racing down a dead-end road. We need to back this experiment up, but the how and why of it remain outside my grasp. I encourage you to discuss this in the comments. Provide resources if you’ve got them. I’ll try to keep an eye on the spam filter to rescue comments that go missing because of links.

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