Religious Freedom: The Foundation of Liberal Democracy

Religious freedom has often been referred to as the "first freedom" in America's constitutional order, but some scholars have argued that liberalism requires that religious freedom not be treated as special or unique in the pantheon of human rights. In this post series, scholars and individuals from all different disciplines and faiths try to define religious freedom and explain why it is a right of particular importance.

By: John J. Dilulio

For his day, Benjamin Franklin was a faithfully agnostic liberal democrat. He opposed religious oaths and qualifications for public office-holding. He warned about religious zeal fomenting factions. Still, Franklin preached against King George III during Sunday worship services at Philadelphia’s Christ Church. He gave money to every religious group in the city, Christian and other. Most sacred places, he reasoned, served civic purposes, including rendering citizens more “benevolent, useful and beneficial to others.” 

Franklin was right. Over the last two decades, empirical studies by the bushel have indicated that, on net, religious beliefs and institutions have significant pro-civic consequences. For instance, as Presidents Bill Clinton, George W, Bush, and Barack Obama each have emphasized, America is blessed by local and national faith-based organizations that cost-effectively and compassionately deliver vital health and human services in cities from coast to coast. 

Here is the motto that Franklin gave to the Library Company of Philadelphia:Communiter Bona profounder Deum est. Translation: To pour forth benefits for the common good is divine. That is not a bad thought to hold when parsing questions about religion’s role in our liberal democracy. 

For instance, should religious convictions figure in our public discourse? 

Yes, of course, just as they have done in every major social and political movement up to and including the civil rights movement of the mid-twentieth century.

Should those who hold religious convictions be expected to “translate” these convictions into a non-religious vernacular, and be prepared to respectfully engage fellow citizens of whatever faith or of no faith accordingly? 

Again, yes, of course. 

For instance, my views on issues ranging from expanding labor union rights to public funding for abortions to enacting universal health care coverage are affected by my religious convictions as a Catholic. But my liberal democracy is a diverse human community that encompasses more than 300 million citizen-souls. Most of my fellow citizens are people of other faiths or of no faith, and so they have other reasons for either agreeing or disagreeing with my views on these issues. Moreover, not all of my Catholic fellow citizens understand or apply Catholic teachings, or weigh prudential considerations, exactly as I do.

The discourse about religion and liberal democracy is less disembodied and often less divisive when it is disciplined by a real-world civic challenge. Take hunger among children. It spikes in the summer months when school is out. Many government leaders and many religious leaders think that we can reduce this problem by expanding government partnerships with the faith-based groups that already deliver tax-funded meals by the millions to low-income kids. So, what’s a good liberal democrat to do, and how? 

In sum, a liberal democracy that did not protect religious freedoms, that did not actively and equally welcome citizens of whatever faith or of no faith into the public square, and that became largely bereft of respectful civic discourse and action that spanned religious differences and religious-secular divides, would be a liberal democracy in name only.

John J. DiIulio, Jr. is Frederic Fox Leadership Professor of Politics, Religion, and Civil Society, and professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania.

This piece was originally authored on April 14, 2014 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. 

Permanent Link: https://www.religiousfreedominstitute.org/cornerstone/2016/6/14/religious-freedom-the-foundation-of-liberal-democracy