Perspectives on the 'First Freedom'

Saturday Book Pick: 'Religious Freedom: Why Now?'

Religious liberty is under assault around the world. Citing a 2009 Pew Research Center study, this new book, Religious Freedom: Why Now?, reports that most of humanity lives in countries “in which religious restrictions — whether imposed by government or social groups — reach high levels of severity.”
In many countries, religious repression enables dictatorships to exercise control over their citizens, who can have no other loyalty but to the incumbent regime. In some countries, a prevailing religion forges an alliance of altar and throne to protect its privileges at the expense of others. In the West, secularist hostility to religion in the public square leads to downplaying the right to public expressions of faith — although morals are supposedly a matter of “choice.”
This tightly written academic report on religious freedom emerged from a three-year task force of the Witherspoon Institute at Princeton University. It makes the case for why religious freedom is necessary. That case is advanced from five perspectives: anthropology, politics, morality, law and strategic interests. It then argues why vigorously advancing religious freedom also lies in America’s national interests.
The bases for religious freedom all converge on one point: the human person. Awareness of the reality and dignity of the human person is the starting point of religious freedom. Anthropologically, religion as a human impulse to know and relate to Something bigger than one’s self is a phenomenon found in all times and cultures. To interfere with so pervasive a human experience necessarily abridges something that most people have always deemed integral to their human fulfillment. Politically, religious freedom necessarily checks a government’s power: “When citizens are free to have an ultimate commitment to something more than human, something beyond the authorities of state and society, the power of the state is thereby limited.” At the same time, religious freedom disciplines religious people to treat their non-coreligionists with respect: “While it invites [religious] ideas and actors into civic and political life, [religious freedom] requires them to accept the constraints imposed by the foundational principle of equality under the law.” Morally, religion is just not religion unless it is done freely. Legally, democracies have progressively recognized that — far from being a marginal special interest — religious freedom is a central human right. Strategically, religiously free countries are free and democratic, as well as generally free of homegrown terrorism.
In many ways, the case for religious freedom made in this book tracks John Courtney Murray’s: a focus on the dignity of the person to respond freely to God and resistance to the omnicompetent state. This study is certainly not light bedtime reading. For those interested in a public defense of the why of religious freedom, however, it provides much food for thought.

Register correspondent John M. Grondelski writes from Perth Amboy, New Jersey.




Defending an Embattled Right
By Timothy Samuel Shah and Matthew J. Franck
The Witherspoon Institute, 2012
86 pages, $9.95
To order: