Religious-Freedom Conservatism

During the Obama years, a new euphemism for religious freedom became popular on the political left: “freedom of worship.” By implication, restricting the free exercise of faith to church on Sunday, this phrase was a piece with other efforts to drive faith from the public square. Fortunately, in recent years, those who recognize the importance of both faith and freedom have fought back. And our efforts have borne fruit: In the just-concluded Supreme Court term, for example, consistent with this principle, the justices reaffirmed the statutory right to religious accommodation under Title VII and the prohibition on government-compelled speech—a huge boon to religious expression.

The Court has also more directly protected religious Americans’ place and voice in the public square. In an opinion issued two terms ago, the Court explained that the Free Exercise Clause provides robust protection not only for “the right to harbor religious beliefs inwardly and secretly,” but also for “the ability of those who hold religious beliefs of all kinds to live out their faiths in daily life through ‘the performance of (or abstention from) ‘physical acts.’” The Court has also clarified that the Constitution’s free speech and free exercise guarantees “work in tandem” to provide “overlapping protection for expressive religious activities.” 

But Court cases cannot be the end of the defense of religious freedom. It remains the best way to ensure the flourishing of faith in public life in a manner that accords with and enriches our culture. And it is a culture in dire need of enrichment. As morality declines and civil society withers, conservatives horrified by the crisis in American society have been drawing up all sorts of political-theory manifestos. Although they reflect a sincere love of country, several of them have embraced a distinctly un-American authoritarianism. Fortunately, there is a sane and creative alternative. The Freedom Conservatism Statement of Principles, of which I’m a signatory, stands above the rest in offering a clear articulation of the necessary elements for human flourishing in America, and especially the most maligned freedom in our country today: religious freedom.

A first glance at the statement might make one wonder if it is worthy of this designation. Do a quick word search of the Statement and you won’t find “religious freedom” or even “religion” mentioned. But worries on this front are unfounded. The Statement invokes core principles that are the foundation for religious freedom in America: individual liberty, freedom of conscience, the rule of law, and subsidiarity.

The Statement begins by unequivocally affirming the importance of individual liberty. “Among Americans’ most fundamental rights is the right to be free from the restrictions of arbitrary force: a right that, in turn, derives from the inseparability of free will from what it means to be human.” For Catholics like me, such respect for free will as part of the human condition should sound familiar. It is the basis for the Catholic Church’s Declaration on Religious Freedom.

The Statement also embraces freedom of conscience. “Essential to a free society is the freedom to say and think what one believes to be true. Under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution, federal and state governments have a legal obligation to uphold and protect these freedoms. Private institutions have a moral obligation to do the same.” The rights of conscience are an individual’s last line of defense. And they are particularly needed to combat the errors of ideologies on both the progressive left and the so-called New Right.

The progressive left, for instance, rejects such a foundational principle, opting instead to elevate the interest of groups—the more intersectional the better—above the needs of the individual and the common good. The result is a rejection of traditional religious beliefs related to human sexuality and the family and a zealous embrace of abortion and gender ideology. Those wielding authority in the federal government and in many state and local governments demand absolute agreement and conformity to such perverse ideologies. It’s pretty scary stuff.

Our nation can be restored only by a robust commitment to timeless principles of liberty, and especially religious liberty, which remains the best way to harmonize sincere religious commitment with our nation’s constitutional structure.

Those on the new right are pushing for a similar power grab. Some no longer believe that America’s institutions can be conducive to religious flourishing (if, in their view, they ever were). Instead, they want their own “regime change” that, conveniently, puts themselves in charge to issue top-down diktats. Ultimately, it’s fantasy and lacks substance from any actual governing experience.

Both movements seek to reimagine society, promising to use centralized state coercion on behalf of either secular ideology (for those on the left) or an explicitly religious program (for those on the right).

These ideas—impossible to reconcile with the letter and spirit of the Constitution—bring us to another principle: respect for the rule of law. As the Statement puts it, “Equality under the law is a foundational principle of American liberty.” At present, however, “this principle is under attack from those who believe that the rule of law does not apply to them,” leading to “the explosion of unaccountable and unelected regulators who routinely exceed their statutory authority and abridge Americans’ constitutional rights.”

We are lucky that a majority of the Supreme Court is similarly committed to this principle. Those committed to the cause of life are also thankful that the Court made a heroic decision to overrule Roe v. Wade, creating the space for laws regulating and restricting the gruesome killing of the unborn.

Again, though, the work cannot end at the Court. Even the overturning of Roe only returned abortion policy to the states. This is why the Statement also affirms the important principle of subsidiarity. “The best way to unify a large and diverse nation like the United States is to transfer as many public policy choices as possible to families and communities,” it says. Such a recognition ennobles families, churches, and church-run institutions in their significant role in forming civil society, and in influencing the political institutions closest and most responsive to them. In this, the Statement accords with the charge given to Catholic laity: to sanctify the world.

Rather than giving in to despair, Freedom Conservatism is optimistic. “To ensure that America’s best days are ahead, we must apply the timeless principle of liberty to the challenges of the twenty-first century,” reads the Statement’s preamble. That means turning our back on dogmatic secularism and “Christian” authoritarianism, both of which have created havoc in other countries.

Our nation can be restored only by a robust commitment to timeless principles of liberty, especially religious liberty, which remains the best way to harmonize sincere religious commitment with our nation’s constitutional structure. Mere “freedom of worship” is not what made Christianity, and the Catholicism I hold, thrive in America. Religious freedom is. Freedom conservatism recognizes this. That’s why I signed its Statement of Principles.