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ESSAY

DOES RELIGION SUPPORT


THE FREE SOCIETY?
The theological claim s of religion m ust be taken seriously
if we are to establish w hether a given faith is likely to
support a free society, argues Samuel Gregg

an religion serve as a foundation for free of free societies in which unjust coercion is

C societies? The answer can be expressed


in two words: It depends. That is, it
depends (amongst other things) on
minimised. These criteria, which are by no means
exhaustive, are:

what we mean by religion, what we mean 1.bya the


free society and which religion we have in mind.
This essay discusses the development of some key
religions understanding of the Divinity;
2. a religions view of reason and free choice; and
3. a religions conception of the state, especially
attributes of Christian faith that help to support the its view of constitutionalism, understood not
free society, in particular the liberal constitutional simply as a power-map but as arrangements
order that guarantees basic freedoms and limits which impose limits on the exercise of power and
the power of the state. It then considers whether guarantee basic freedoms.2
the theological claims of Islam also allow for
the development of liberal constitutionalism in W h a t is 're lig io n '?
Muslim societies. Before considering these matters, we need to
From the outset, it should be noted that even define religion.3 One starting point is to ask
among those who favour the free society views what distinguishes religious convictions from, say,
differ about what constitutes such a society. For philosophical and political beliefs. Contrary to
our purposes, the free society will be understood what is often proposed, the difference is not to be
in terms of what Australian-born Oxford economic found in the regular assertion that religion (or faith)
historian, the late Max ITartwell, described as belief is to be contrasted with reason.
in a free civilization, coupled with concern about Such distinctions often assume
government coercion and dominant beliefs and that religious faith is by definition
misconceptions that drive policy in a totalitarian irrational. But the fact that
direction.1 something cannot be completely
Concerning religion and the free society, this explained by unaided human
essay does not suggest that religion is or is not reason does not mean that it does
generally compatible with the free society. Nor not exist or that it is untrue.
does it argue that religion is or is not an essential
foundation for freedom. Rather, it seeks to outline Dr Samuel Gregg is Director of Research at the Acton
some criteria by which we can consider whether Institute. This essay is based on his presentation to the
a given religion is likely to supportor provide Mont Pelerin Society General Meeting in September.
a foundation for the growth and development

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SAMUEL GREGG

If the religion-reason contrast fails, perhaps understood primarily as a Voluntas who operates
religion may be best understood as a cultural above or beyond reason. The ancient pagan religions,
matter. After all, religions are a source of ways of for example, presented the deities as willful,
acting, different practices, protocols, institutions capricious beings who meddled in human affairs
and symbols. Most embrace a collective memory. for the sake of their own hedonistic amusement
Some religions (especially those with strong tribal rather than any rational concern for the well-being
or folk dimensions) may even regard such things as of mortal creatures.
more important than actual beliefs and doctrines. The importance of such matters goes beyond
Yet most religions clearly make demands of their intellectual speculation. For how we understand
adherents that go beyond those of a club or cultural Gods nature has implications for whether we can
association. Religions understand themselves to judge particular human choices and actions to be
be more than just groups of like-minded people unreasonable. If a given religion understands God
doing similar things and engaging in particular as an essentially reasonable being, then such a God
practices over a period of time. Most religious will presumably expect its adherents also to act
rituals, customs, and expectations are derivative of reasonably, that is, in a non-arbitrary manner. A
something different and more fundamental than commitment to reasonableness and non-arbitrary
a shared appreciation for art or consciousness of behaviour is central to key institutions of a free
ethnic bonds. society, most notably rule of law and constitutionally-
In the end, religion and religious belief may be best limited government. On the other hand, i f reason
defined in terms of ones search for and conclusions is simply not part of a religions conception of the
concerning the truth about the transcendent. That is, Divinitys nature, then that Divinity can command
religion is directly concerned with the truth about his followers to make unreasonable choices. That
the divine (including the question of whether or not does not augur well for respect for the reasonableness
there is a divinity) and the meaning of that truth that is central to the principles and operations of
for human choice and action in a way that political liberal constitutional order.
beliefs, ideological convictions, and non-religious
forms of human organisation are not .4 The first Christian thinkers understood that
human reason allowed people to know the
Religion and the divinity
same truths of morality without direct
One of the most important forces at work in a given
religion is its understanding of the Divinity. This reference to Revelation.
matters because a religions capacity to support a
free society depends upon whether its dominant Religion, reason and free choice
theological tradition (as opposed to outlier versions) How a religion understands the nature of the
understands the divine as embodying particular Divinity points to a second important criteria when
characteristics such as Logos (Divine Reason) or considering whether a given religion can serve as a
Voluntas (Divine Will). foundation of free societies its view of reason and
Christianity at least its orthodox expressions free choice.
considers itself, for example, to be presenting a Some religions have a high view of reason. As
public revelation in the sense of a communication early as the second century, for instance, the first
from the Divine to humans that has unfolded over Christian thinkers understood that human reason
time and in the form of specific historical events, allowed people to know the same truths of morality
the facts of which were witnessed, recorded and without direct reference to Revelation. This
presented to others for their free assent. Christianity understanding led to the doctrine of natural law:
regards this divinity as a rational being or Logos that God gave humans, as intrinsic to their natural
from which human reason is ultimately derived. reason, precepts worthy of men made free and
Some religions have less regard for reason or common to all naturalia et liberala et communia
simply say little about it. In some cases, God is omniumL

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DOES RELIGION SUPPORT THE FREE SOCIETY?

Over the centuries, Christian theologians have Old Testament (or Hebrew Scriptures) underscore
applied natural law reasoning to many subjects: an essential message that Was fully grasped by the
international relations, questions of war and peace, Jewish people: that we can and often do, make free
issues of authority and sovereignty, the origins and choices: we have free will. Against Hellenistic
limits of government, and the right of resistance to doctrines of fate, the Hebrew Scriptures contain
tyranny; the nature of money and capital and the a whole narrative of responsibility for free choices
workings of contract, prices and exchange; and the made, of covenants freely entered into, broken and
workings of equity in the legal system, the nature restored by renewed free choices.9
and limits of positive law, and categories of justice. Similar accounts of the reality of free will are
It was also Christian thinkers who first formulated integral to Christianity. We see this, for instance,
the mature concept of human rights. They did so in the insistence of medieval theologians, most
by asking what self-evident first principles told us notably Thomas Aquinas, upon the radical freedom
about what each human being reasonably owes to of the will, understood as each individuals spiritual
every other human being. For free societies, such (in the sense of non-material) ability to choose
inquiry was important, partly because it helped and carry out one option instead of all the available
shaped many of their key economic, political and alternatives in the sense that nothing else determines
legal institutions, but also because without reason, what he is choosing except that act itself of choosing
it is hard to identify and discuss what constitutes in light of reason.10
arbitrary actions by the state. So what might this mean for the free society? In
the case of religions with a high view of free choice,
they are arguably: (1) more inclined to support
Outside of orthodox Judaism and orthodox
conditions that seek to limit unjust coercion and
(small o) Christianity, it is hard to find robust provide space in the political, economic and social
accounts of free will in the world's religions. spheres for the exercise of free choice; and/or (2)
capable of correction when their adherents act
A strong attention to reason is also important in ways which suggest that this crucial point has
because, absent such a commitment, there is a real become obscured. Deterministic versions of faith
risk that a religion will remain or become fideistic: (or deterministic philosophies, for that matter), by
that is, the idea that religious faith is somehow contrast, have no particular reason to prioritise the
independent of reason, and/or that faith and reason establishment and protection of such conditions
are somehow inherently hostile to each other, insofar as they regard free will and free choice as an
and/or that faith and religious precepts and their illusion.
implementation do not require explanation to
either believers in the faith or non-believers. Hence, Religion, the state and constitutionalism
one cannot reason with the fideist that violence in A third important criteria by which a religions
the name of religion is unreasonable.8 capacity to support and maintain a free society
At the same time, a religions conception of reason may be assessed concerns its view of one particular
plays a central role in a given faiths understanding institution that has long occupied the thinking of
of the will: including whether or not adherents of those who support a free civilisation: the state.
that faith believe the will is actually free, or whether Jesus of Nazareths famous words render to
we are simply subject to some type of determinism, Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God
be it Karl Marxs hard determinism or John Stuart what belongs to God (Luke 20:25), were literally
Mills soft determinism. And if determinism is true, revolutionary in their implications for how most
it is unclear why people should care about freedom people, including many non-Jews and non-
or the preservation of a free society. Christians, subsequently understood the state. For,
Outside of orthodox Judaism and orthodox as observed by the 19th century English historian
(small o) Christianity, it is hard to find robust Lord Acton, in religion, morality, and politics,
accounts of free will in the worlds religions. The there was only one legislator and one authority in

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SAMUEL GREGG

the pre-Christian ancient world: the polis and later vital distinction between the claims of God and
the Roman state.11 Separation of the temporal and Caesar, with its implicit limiting of state power, has
spiritual was incomprehensible to pagan minds persisted in Christian religious belief and actions,
because a distinction between the two did not exist. even in those instances where state authorities
The state controlled all aspects of religion. As the effectively assumed headship of the church Henry
late Rodger Charles S.J., noted: VIII being perhaps the most famous example.
At the heart of many such matters has been the
in saying that God had to be given his issue of the religious freedom of individuals and
due as well as Caesar, [Jesus of Nazareth] organisations vis-a-vis the state. This embraces
asserted the independence of the spiritual questions such as the legitimacy of religious belief
authority from the political in all matters as a foundation for activity in the public square,
of the spirit, of faith, worship and morals. blasphemy laws, religious tests for public office,
This was a new departure in the worlds religious education in private and public settings,
experience of religion. . . . The kingdom state funding of religious activities, and so on. It
of God that Christ had announced was need hardly be said that denial of religious freedom
spiritual, but it was to have independence has resulted in the systematic and sporadic coercion
as a social organization so that the things of millions by governments over the centuries,
of God could be given at least equal the worst in sheer numbers being that inflicted by
seriousness to those of Caesar.12 communist regimes throughout the 20th century.

In this way Christianity achieved the hitherto


unthinkable: the states de-sacralisation. Christianity Jesus of Nazareths famous words render
was respectful of the Roman states authority. The to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to
writings of Paul and Peter, for instance, underline God what belongs to God' were literally
the divine origin of the states legal authority.13 revolutionary in their implications for
Nevertheless, both Judaism and Christianity insisted
how most people subsequently
that Caesar was not a god and may not behave as
understood the state.
if he was god. Jews and Christians would pray for
earthly rulers. It was, however, anathema for Jews
and Christians to pray to such rulers. While Jews O f the temporal and spiritual
and Christians regarded the state as the custodian There are many ways in which this distinction
of social order, they did not consider the state itself between the temporal and spiritual (or ecclesiastical)
to be the ultimate source of truth and law.14Thus, as realms has been expressed throughout history.
one theologian writes, Jews and Christians viewed Among others, these include a high degree of
the state as an order that found its limits in a faith integration (for example, the Orthodox Church in
that worshiped not the state, but a God who stood Russia under the Czars), soft-establishmentarianism
over the state and judged it.15 (todays Church of England) and concordat models
This set the stage for ongoing clashes between (which exist in some Catholic-majority nations).
the state and religious believers and organisations Another way in which this distinction is
across the globe which persist today. Certainly, there expressed has been through what might be called
have been instances throughout the centuries when non-confessionalism. By this, I mean a state of
Christian churches and ecclesial communities have affairs in which government refrains from according
associated themselves with the exercise of temporal formal legal recognition to any one religious
power to varying degrees, precisely because they position and genuinely seeks to treat members
paid insufficient attention to the differences and of all religious groups, including non-believers
distinctions between the temporal and spiritual and agnostics, fairly. In these nations, there is no
orders that Christian Revelation and reason itself established religion. There are no religious tests for
suggests and explains. Yet despite these cases, the public office. The exercise of religious liberty is not

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DOES RELIGION SUPPORT THE FREE SOCIETY?

restricted to interior belief or questions of prayer can regularly and consistently infringe on ones
and worship. Nor is religious liberty regarded legitimate religious freedoms, it will have little
as a mandate for the state to free people from difficulty promoting unjust coercion in all other
religion. Non-confessionalism seeks to guarantee spheres of life.
the freedom of all religious communities and non
believers within a free society, consistent with the Islam and constitutionalism
liberties of others and the legitimate demands of What, however, happens if a religion does not
public order. embody a strong distinction between the temporal
Non-confessionalism is not to be understood and the spiritual? O r if a religion understands itself
as doctrinaire secularism. For, unlike doctrinaire as subsuming holus-bolus the state? Or if there is no
secularism, non-confessionalism does not demand meaningful distinction between religious and state
that anyone contributing, for example, to political authority? Or if a religions theology does not allow
discussion must act as if there is no God, or if for the development of constitutional orders that
there is, this ought to have no bearing whatsoever prioritise and protect religious liberty and other
upon their choices and actions in this arena.16 Nor freedoms?
does non-confessionalism mean that governments This, many argue, is one of the major challenges
are somehow obliged to deny a nations religious facing the Islamic world, and one that those Muslims
heritage. To pretend, for example, that Islam has who want to see the emergence of free societies
not exerted tremendous influence upon Arab and in majority-Islamic nations are acutely aware of.
Turkish history and culture is as ahistorical as trying In his book Islamic Theology, Constitutionalism,
to deny the influence of Orthodoxy in Russia, and the State (2012), the Swiss philosopher and
Hinduism in India, Lutheranism in Finland, historian of Russian, Arab, and Islamic thought,
Shinto-ism in Japan, or Buddhism in Thailand. Lukas Wick, argues that if constitutional order and
Non-confessionalism is not about the unofficial rule of law are to emerge and last, they require a
obliteration of the religious dimension of national certain view of man, reality and God. He maintains
and cultural memory by the state in the name of that Christianity helped develop and give form to
liberty, equality, or neutrality. constitutionalism because of (1) its grounding in
metaphysical realism, (2) its insistence of the natural
integrity of the world, (3) its emphasis upon the
If the state can regularly and consistently freedom of man, and (4) its affirmation of natural
infringe on ones legitimate religious law.
freedoms, it will have little difficulty The success of this movement throughout
promoting unjust coercion in much of the West facilitated the growth of
all other spheres of life. constitutionalism in other parts of the world
including, as underscored by the British-Lebanese
historian of the Arab world, the late Albert Hourani,
None of these approaches will in themselves its Muslim portion.17Wick points out, however, that
resolve all conflicts between religious freedom and these constitutions in Muslim nations do not seem
other freedoms. They do, however, provide a basis to have prevented significant slippages in freedom,
for coherent legal and political policies concerning especially religious freedom, in most such countries.
religious freedom. The point, however, is that to Most have lapsed into some form of despotism,
the extent that a religion (1) embodies or is capable either in the name of Islamism or by figures often
of generating this type of distinction between the identified in the West as secular. The question thus
temporal and the spiritual, and (2) favours and arises of why constitutionalism has not been able to
even facilitates the development of a constitutional root itself more firmly in these countries.
order which expresses such a distinction, it helps to Wick seeks to answer this question by taking
limit the states ability to intervene in a particularly Islamic theology (of which, he notes, there are many
important sphere of freedom. For, if the state schools and traditions) seriously. He does not make

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the all-too-common mistake of reading Islam constitutionalism . 19 To do otherwise would cease to


through a Christian or secular lens. Wick considers, be Muslim in a fundamental way.
for instance, what theology in Islam actually Wick does not rule out the eventual development
means, and illustrates that Islams understanding of genuine constitutionalism within Islam. But he
of theology is very different to that of Christianity. does provide a powerful account of the formidable
Consequently, Wick argues, Islam does not obstacles to be overcome if this is going to
invite reflective thought in theology because its happen, and warns against facile comparisons with
epistemological outlook is constrained by Islams developments in other religions. As Robert R. Reilly
notion that knowledge is restricted to revelation. comments, One might wish this were otherwise,
Thus, Islamic theology immediately devolves into but hope that is not founded upon a grasp of the
jurisprudence, understood as the examination and realities that are laid out here will be misplaced. 20
immediate application of divine rules to political,
social, legal and economic life.
Even more important is that part of Muslim
revelation that runs counter to the Jewish and Islamic theology immediately devolves
Christian doctrine that man is made in Gods into jurisprudence, understood as the
image and likeness. W ithout this likeness, man has
examination and immediate application
no theological grounds for being understood as a
of divine rules to political, social, legal
co-creator, or as one who exercises sovereignty in
the sense of freedom and free choice as understood and economic life.
by the Hebrew prophets, Paul and Aquinas. In the
absence of such image-bearing characteristics, such
powers are Gods alone. Moreover, Wick adds, there C onclu sion
is no such thing as natural man in Islam insofar as None of this is to suggest that people who belong
Islam considers all people to be born Muslim. And to a particular faith necessarily know, understand
if there is no natural man or natural law then or even agree with all its precepts concerning the
such a doctrine, Wick maintains, undermines the nature of the Divinity, its view of reason and free
very concept of natural rights which was central to will, and its conception of the relationship between
the Western project of constitutionalism . 18 the religious and civil realms. Many do not. It is
In the sixth and last chapter of his book, Wick also true that, despite identifying with a given
analyses the writings of important Muslim thinkers religion, many consistently, even consciously, make
who have taught in established and recognised choices that directly contradict many of its key
Sunni Muslim educational settings. These range precepts. Membership of a given religion does not
across the theological spectrum, from outright thus mean that all its adherents will instinctively
Islamists to those of other persuasions. Wicks aim support or work against free societies. Nor does it
is to discern whether any one of them is friendlier guarantee that they will believe that their faith tends
than the others to the notion of constitutional order. to support or corrode a free society. Throughout
While their overall positions are hardly uniform, history, there are many who have acted against what
Wick concludes that none of these thinkers have their faith tells them about the nature and demands
a favourable view of constitutionalism. The of freedom for better and worse.
difficulty, Wick states, is that each of them holds If, however, we want to establish whether a given
that Islamic Revelation (which they interpret in religion is in principle likely to be favourably
different ways) is the only source of legitimacy. disposed to supporting the free society, we must be
This means that, theologically-speaking, they cannot willing to take the theological claims of that faith
consider the ideas and thinkers that, historically seriously. In short, we must study such things as
(that is, various Greek, Roman, Enlightenment and they are rather than what we may wish them to be.
Christian thinkers ranging from Pericles to Cicero, A person may, or may not, believe in a given
Aquinas, and Montesquieu) have given rise to religions truth-claims. But for the purposes of

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DOES RELIGION SUPPORT THE FREE SOCIETY?

9 Deuteronomy, for instance, encapsulates its presentation of


answering the question posed by this essay, this the Covenant between God and his people in the choice:
is not important. What matters is consideration See, I set before you on this day life and good, evil and
of whether these truth-claims are likely to result death . . . Therefore, choose life. Deuteronomy 30: 15, 19.
in a religion and its adherents contributing to, or Similarly, Ben Sirach, writing circa 200 B.C., summarises
corroding, or simply being passive in the face of, the the whole teaching of the Old Testament on the reality of
free choice: W hen [God] created man in the beginning,
development of a free civilisation. Only then can we he left him free to make his own decisions. If you wish you
pass from wishful thinking into reality. can keep the commandments, and it is in your power to
remain faithful. He has set fire and water before you; you
stretch out your hand to whichever you prefer. Life and
E n d n o te s death are set before man; whichever a man prefers will be
1 R.M. Hartwell, A History o f the M ont Pelerin Society given him. Ecclesiasticus 15: 11, 14-17.
(Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1995), xviii. 10 See John Finnis, Body, Soul and Inform ation: O n
2 See Eric Barendt, An Introduction to Constitutional Law Anscombes royal road to true belief, 5th Annual
(Oxford: OUP, 1998), 1-2 Anscombe Memorial Lecture (Oxford, St Johns College:
3 This section draws on and develops ideas expressed in 21 October 2014). Copy of text on file with author.
Samuel Gregg, Religious Liberty, The Modern State, and 11 Lord Acton, Essays on Freedom and Power, G. Himmelfarb
Secularism: Principles and Practice (Berlin: Friedrich (ed.), (Boston: Crossroad, 1948), 45.
Naumann Stiftung, 2013). 12 Rodger Charles, S.J., Christian Social Witness and Teaching,
4 Particular political or ideological convictions may imply, vol.l, From Biblical Times to the Late Nineteenth Century
reflect or demand com m itm ent to a specific religious (Leominister: Gracewing, 1998), 36.
position. Marxism, for instance, was explicitly committed 13 See, for instance, Romans 13:1-6; 1 Peter 2:13-17.
to materialism and atheism. National Socialism promoted 14 Joseph Ratzinger, Values in a Time o f Upheaval (San
a type of paganism. But political philosophies are not Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006), 59.
immediately concerned with attem pting to know and 15 Joseph Ratzinger, Salt o f the Earth (San Francisco: Ignatius
then express the truth about the transcendent in the ways Press, 1996), 240.
that atheism, Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, or 16 These are not religiously-neutral positions. Both are
Buddhism most certainly are. derivatives of two of the three variants of atheism specified
5 John 1.1. by Plato: (1) there is no God; or no God with any concern
6 Ireneus, Adversus Haereses (circa 180-199): 16, 5. with human choice and action; or (2) any such divine
7 See, for example, Brian Tierney, The Idea o f Natural Rights concern with the human is easily appeased by a piety that
(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997); John Finnis, is at best cosmetic and requires no thoroughgoing rejection
Aquinas: Moral, Political, and Legal Theory (Oxford: OUP, of human vices. See LawsY^ 885b, 888c, 901 d, 902e-903a,
1998); and Harold Berman, Law and Revolution: The 908b-d, 909a-b.
Formation o f the Western Legal Tradition (Cambridge, MA: 17 Albert Hourani, A History o f the Arab Peoples (Cambridge,
Harvard University Press, 1983). MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), Parts 4 and 5.
8 This point is underscored by Benedict X V Is 2006 18 See Lukas Wick, Islamic Theology, Constitutionalism, and
Regensburg Address. See Benedict XVI, Faith, Reason, and the State (Grand Rapids, MI: Acton Institute, 2012), and
the University (12 September 2006), http://w2.vatican. Foreword by Robert R. Reilly.
va/content/benedict-xvi/en/speeches/2006/septem ber/ 19 Wick, Islamic Theology, 131-176.
d o cu m en ts/h f_ b en -x v i_ sp e_ 2 0 0 6 0 9 1 2 _ u n iv ersity - 20 Reilly, Foreword, iii.
regensburg.html

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