Religious Freedom and the Common Good: A Summary of Arguments and Issues

12 Pages Posted: 7 Sep 2019

See all articles by Thomas C. Berg

Thomas C. Berg

University of St. Thomas, St. Paul/Minneapolis, MN - School of Law

Date Written: 2019


This article introduces papers (in the disciplines of law, sociology, and public policy) from the 2018 symposium “Religious Freedom and the Common Good” (University of St. Thomas School of Law.) Arguments over the constitutional right of religious freedom often treat it religious freedom as a matter of personal autonomy. But religious freedom may have another dimension and justification: that it advances, or is a component of, the common good. Such an argument explores the ways in which religious freedom does not simply protect its practitioners but also preserves space for religion and religious communities to benefit the broader society (including by benefiting individuals).

We tend to think that the common good is simply a limit on freedom: that individual and societal claims inevitably clash, that the common good stands for society’s interests in restricting the actions of individuals and private groups. But freedoms also serve social purposes. Indeed, such arguments may be increasingly important to defending the right of religious freedom in an era of skepticism toward many religious claims. Perhaps for this reason, advocates and scholars have made a discernible turn toward exploring the common good as one key rationale for religious freedom.

But this justification of religious freedom also raises a number of important challenges and questions. They can generally be grouped into three areas: (A) What precisely is the evidence, and how strong is it, for the connection between religion and benefits to individuals and society? (B) What do religion’s social contributions have to do with religious freedom? (C) How does the common good suggest limits on the scope of religious freedom, or criticisms of religious freedom as it is practiced or claimed today?

To address these and other questions, this symposium draws together papers from social scientists, legal scholars and advocates, and policy experts.

Keywords: Religious organizations, religious freedom, common good, civic virtue, religious nonprofits, religious social services, African American church, Catholic social thought, international religious freedom, restrictions on religious freedom, empirical measures of religious freedom

Suggested Citation

Berg, Thomas Charles, Religious Freedom and the Common Good: A Summary of Arguments and Issues (2019). 15 University of St. Thomas Law Journal 517 (2019); U of St. Thomas (Minnesota) Legal Studies Research Paper No. 19-09. Available at SSRN:

Thomas Charles Berg (Contact Author)

University of St. Thomas, St. Paul/Minneapolis, MN - School of Law ( email )

1000 La Salle Avenue
Mail # MSL400
Minneapolis, MN 55403-2015
United States

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