Religion is essential to a vibrant, democratic society
Religion is vital to democracy
“[We] have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion.” — John Adams
Religious instruction and belief remain today the lifeblood of society’s moral ethos. Not only does religion teach virtue, it catalyzes moral action. As such, religion plays an essential societal role warranting special consideration. This role was rightly described by a Chinese economist studying democracy in America. “In your past,” the economist explained, “most Americans attended a church or synagogue every week. When you were there, from your youngest years, you were taught that you should voluntarily obey the law; that you should respect other people’s property, and not steal it. You were taught never to lie, and to respect the life and freedom of others the same as your own. Americans followed these rules because they had come to believe that even if the police didn’t catch them when they broke a law, God would catch them. Democracy works because most people most of the time voluntarily obey your laws.”[i]
Such qualitative observations are corroborated by quantitative research. Many scholars have gathered empirical evidence tracing the strong correlation between contemporary religious observance in America and virtuous behavior. For example, religiously observant citizens tend to be more generous and civically-minded neighbors.[ii] According to estimates, more than 90 percent of those who attend weekly worship services donate to charity, and nearly 70 percent volunteer for charitable causes.[iii]
Some laud these good works but attempt to marginalize the beliefs and practices that motivate them. Such efforts are unfortunate. Distinct religious beliefs and practices are fundamental to the moral actions they arouse. Examples abound of religious faith inspiring communities to profound acts of charity and selfless service. These positive contributions underscore the need to preserve the fundamental human right of religious freedom.
Indeed, preserving religious freedom also has its benefits. Bundled with other freedoms, religious liberty boosts society’s socio-economic progress and reduces violent conflicts.[iv] As a result, societies are more likely to flourish when citizens have this freedom to voice their deepest beliefs and highest ideals. In short, both religion and religious freedom contribute to a more peaceful, stable and charitable society.
Religion’s constitutional protection
For these full effects to take hold, the protection of religious freedom must extend beyond just worship. Religious freedom must include protecting morally or religiously motivated public expression. People of faith and religious-based institutions continue to play an important role in shaping social and moral issues through proper democratic channels. Like other worthy organizations and causes, religious people and institutions deserve to be heard in the public sphere — neither religious nor secular voices should be silenced.
Of course, the accommodation of religious liberty does not undermine other societal interests. The free-exercise clause of the United States Constitution unequivocally protects religion in America, but religious extremism that threatens others is not protected. Government can and does, for example, impose reasonable restrictions to ensure safety in a pluralistic society. However, the legal and legislative process provides a means to continually protect, shape and define religious freedom so it is not overridden. While reasonable protections are welcomed, they should respect the healthy separation between government and religion that allows religion to thrive.
Indeed, the proper separation of church and state has the effect of strengthening religious institutions and the broader community. To exert its positive influence, religious organizations and individuals must maintain space from government — physical, social and legal — to freely practice their faith. This enables religious institutions to express their message, determine who they are, and live out their convictions in meaningful ways. Religious space must continue to be respected, and religion should not be sequestered.
Encroachment on the first freedom
Unfortunately, religious space is increasingly being squeezed by a view that religion is purely a private matter. This trend is disconcerting, especially to people of faith.
Despite this encroachment, the role of religion in society remains indispensable. The 19th-century commentator on democracy Alexis De Tocqueville said, “When any religion whatsoever has cast deep roots within a democracy … preserve it carefully as the most precious inheritance.”[v] Religion today remains a most precious inheritance. Properly preserving this inheritance will require renewed respect for religious liberty and the democratic principles that support it. This respect will come more rapidly as individuals and governments understand and recognize religion’s vital place in society.
[i] Clayton M. Christensen, “The Importance of Asking the Right Questions” (commencement speech, Southern New Hampshire University, Manchester, N.H., May 16, 2009).
[ii] See Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us (New York City: Simon Schuster, 2010), 461.
[iii] Arthur C. Brooks, “Religious Faith and Charitable Giving,” Policy Review (October 2003). Similar statistics are found in the “Faith Matters Survey 2006,” as cited in American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us.
[iv] See Brian J. Grim and Roger Finke, The Price of Freedom Denied (New York City: University of Cambridge, 2011) and Brian J. Grim, “Religious Freedom: Good for What Ails Us,” The Review of Faith & International Affairs 6, no. 2, 3-7.
[v] Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. and ed. Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 519.