Religious Freedom and the Common Good
28 Pages Posted: 26 Feb 2019
Date Written: December 1, 2018
As fights over religious liberty in culture war contexts contribute to the polarization straining our political institutions and public values, few topics are more important to consider than the relationship between religious freedom and the common good. This relationship is complex and multifaceted, and the failure on all sides to explore this relationship deeply enough has exacerbated our current divisions. This essay, which was delivered as a talk at a conference on The Question of Religious Freedom at Loyola University Chicago, seeks to carefully consider this relationship and focuses, in particular, on four of its facets. First, strong protections for religious liberty, including robust accommodations when laws and regulations burden religious practice, are essential to the common good. Religious freedom does not come at the expense of the common good, and they are not in opposition. Second, religious freedom must be formulated in light of the common good. The common good is the good of all of us, and the right to follow one’s religious conscience in society cannot be unlimited. Third, religious liberty must be pursued with the common good in mind. When religious believers seek protections for religious practice, they should consider the effects of their demands on others, and where conflicts arise, all sides should work together to develop solutions that minimize burdens on one another to the greatest extent possible.
Compromises are especially difficult to achieve in culture war contexts because the opposing sides start with different understandings of the human goods of marriage, family, and sexuality, and both believe that getting these understandings right and having them reflected in law and social practice are essential to the well-being of society. As a result, many proponents of same-sex marriage and reproductive freedom have resisted religious accommodations with significant public effects, and many religious traditionalists have been unwilling to grant concessions to progressive agendas in exchange for religious protections. However, this dynamic rests on too narrow an understanding of the common good. Human dignity requires room for the exercise of human freedom, and room for freedom will mean space for competing views. For religious believers in today’s culture wars, their faith requires even more; they must exercise their rights in ways that witness to the divine love they are called to imitate and model. Listening, engagement, and dialogue are necessary to such a witness, and they are also essential democratic values. Finally, rethinking the relationship between religious freedom and the common good holds the potential for advancing the common good more broadly, and this is a fourth facet of their relationship. If we can move from fights about religious liberty to dialogue and compromise grounded in mutual understanding, this de-escalation can serve as a model and sign of hope for reducing our political polarization more broadly and for charting a new path focused on the common good.
Keywords: common good, Dignitatis Humanae, human dignity, religious freedom, Establishment Clause, free exercise, religious exemptions, religious accommodation, third-party harm, same-sex marriage, contraceptive mandate, contraception mandate, culture wars, antidiscrimination laws, abortion, contraception
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