Saturday, November 14, 2009

Down with Religious Freedom?

It has always made a huge difference in American politics whether the liberty that matters will be the rights of individuals to stand against collectivities or the rights of collectivities such as churches, local governments, landlords, corporations, and families to oppress individuals without the interference of the central government. I was reminded of this distinction while reading Jonathan Israel’s account of Baruch Spinoza’s opinions on religious freedom and how his views contrasted with those of John Locke. Both wrote in favor of toleration, but Spinoza, though he favored an absolute right of individuals to believe in any faith and practice it privately, thought that the state should restrain the public activities of dissenting religions because they were likely to be combinations against the public peace and engines of oppression—not an unreasonable suspicion in his century as, for that matter, it is not in ours. Locke’s version of toleration was almost exactly the reverse. He maintained that the state should tolerate, within limits, dissenting churches but not dissenting individuals. His notion of tolerance is sometimes criticized because it did not extend to atheists or Catholics, but it was even more narrow than that.

Maybe Spinoza was on to something. When the politically actively churches of our day complain about government action, they are usually unhappy because the state is preventing them from telling individuals what to do. It’s as if the Mormons and Baptists and Catholics were asserting a First Amendment right to persecute others. Legalizing same sex marriage or abortion doesn’t obligate anybody to do anything. These reforms simply deny religious groups the authority to impose their own morality on nonbelievers. In essence, their plaint that somebody else’s rights diminish theirs duplicates the arguments of Southerners, who claimed that the government has no right to tell them that they can’t own human beings.

The neocons and others still promote the ancient thesis that organized, obligatory religiosity is necessary to maintain social cohesion; but the 700 Clubs, Muslim brotherhoods, and Unification churches have exactly the reverse tendency. They promote division and hatred as, with some few exceptions, politically active religions always have.

I’m not suggesting that the government should attempt to suppress particular sects or churches, but I think it is time we stopped giving them special rights such as the tax exemption for their non-charitable activities. One can only give freedom of conscience to artificial persons like churches by compromising the freedom of real persons.