A Theology of Religious Freedom

Originally posted 12-20-06

Is religious freedom a theological construct? Or is religious freedom merely a political necessity to keep different religions from killing each other. After reading John Noonan’s book, The Lustre of Our Country, I find myself asking this question. First, let me say that Noonan’s book of superb. He looks at religious freedom in the American context from a number of different perspectives and in a number of different ways. He offers a fun diversity in styles that pulls out different nuances of the question. Great book, I highly recommend it!

Noonan argues that religious freedom is a theological construct. First, in arguing against Durkheim, Noonan claims, “You shall substitute neither State nor society for God nor suppose that religion may be analytically reduced to the self-worship of society.” Noonan is arguing that religion is more than a “unified system of beliefs and practices relating t sacred things,…set apart and forbidden, beliefs and practices which unite into a single moral community…” (Durkheim). Noonan argues against Bellah’s concept of a civil religion. And while he does not criticize it overtly, Noonan does not seem to fall within the understanding of Geertz’s “system of symbols.” Instead, Noonan claims that religion is a relationship to God, that there is a necessary personal aspect to religion that transcends the corporate understanding of civil religion. Not because an individual cannot love his or her country, but because a country cannot love back. While he does not cite the work, Noonan seems to be taking up an argument that Milbank is making in Theology and Social Theory, that theology cannot be explained through observation and social analysis. Noonan refuses to let religion be explained as a phenomenon of society; God exists, and humanity is striving to connect with God.

It is here that the conscious comes into play. To allow the individual to fully and freely connect with God, he or she must have complete freedom of that consciousness. This is the $20 word of the work – consciousness (or at least the word that Madison loves). Noonan states, “You shall acknowledge that religion itself requires religious freedom. Heart speaks to heart, spirit answers Spirit, freely.” On cannot help but notice the Rahnerian influence of transcendence and individuality. The individual will be drawn to the divine, and hopefully the Christian understanding of the divine. We must stay out of the way.

Yet can we say with all authenticity that the political construct, the 16 words in the First Amendment, are indeed theological? If the Catholics were in control, wouldn’t they want to make sure that people are free to choose God, but the God as they understand it? Even if it was without overt coercion, wouldn’t a Catholic state really want to increase its numbers in the pew? This was the idea that John Courtney Murray was arguing against as Noonan nicely illustrates. Or let’s be honest with the Baptists. While some Baptists, like Leland, wanted strict separation for theological and typological reasons (the state was never to be understood as the realm of God… back to Milbank), others like Backuus (whom Noonan lifts up) would like a looser separation, with ultimately a Baptist influenced and run state. For Backuus, the separation was a necessity, but not a theological necessity.

If it is theological, then how do we understand freedom in contrast with evangelism? Evangelism, by nature, is meant to coercive and persuade. If you think you have found the best thing, do you really think it is best to sit back and hope others are attracted to your movement? Or, to consider the abolitionist movement, if you see the State moving in a direction that is country to every moral fiber in your faith informed understanding, shouldn’t you try to change the direction of the state, and those religious movement which support it (Noonan considers these questions with slavery, polygamy, and temperance)?

This is an issue that Baptists are struggling with in a very real way right now. Freedom, to what extent? Even in the individual churches, freedom to what extent? Can we take a chance and allow churches to move in the way they see as best, even if it is against what we hold dear? Now we are entering into the realm of ecclesiology.

With the experiment of religious freedom, it seems that one could consider it in at least two ways. (1) From a non-theological point of view, the separation is a political necessity to avoid bloodshed among the various groups. Yet it is appropriate for religious movement to have influence over the political machine, policies, and direction. As long as other movements are tolerated, then it would be appropriate for one to have more power than others. Case in point – the recent political aspirations of the Religious Right. (2) We need to trust that God will lead us as a people working through the variety of religious groups. We need to influence the government, but understand when we unduly influence the faith and practice of another group we have gone to far. We are to be persuasive with each other, to try to influence each other, but never enforce one view over the other; the Holy Spirit will lead us to truth.

In a pluralistic society, the second option has a number of problems theologically, unless you understand the state as sanctioned by God, and guided by God.
I now understand why Noonan wrote his work, and why it was not a brief work – this is a question/issue that is complex. To solve it, or even understand it briefly would be an amazing (impossible) feat!