Economic Freedom And Religious Freedom Are Mutually Reinforcing

Samuel Gregg Research Director, Acton Institute
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If there is one thing we have learned over the past six years, it is the mutually reinforcing nature of different expressions of freedom. No form of freedom – religious, civil, political or economic – is absolute, of course. But unjust infringements (intentional or otherwise) on one freedom can easily result in damage being inflicted upon other spheres of freedom.

This is indisputably true, for instance, of religious and political freedom. All totalitarian and most authoritarian regimes usually end up seeking to severely restrict religious liberty. Sometimes this is for ideological or religious reasons. Some religions, for instance, embody very weak notions of tolerances for those of other faiths, or none. That creates problems for religious minorities in states such as Iran.

But severe restrictions on religious freedom often have as much to do with seeking to shut down any sphere of life that is outside the government’s control. Thus Communist regimes, for instance, invariably showed limited tolerance for religious organizations, especially those that refuse to accept the state as exercising any authority over questions of religious dogma and doctrine, or those which maintain they have certain obligations to God which will always trump those of the government. This is core to the Chinese Communist regime’s ongoing suppression of those Chinese Catholics and evangelicals who refuse to submit to the demands of the regime’s religious affairs bureaucracy.

One area that has received less attention, however, is the connection between economic liberty and religious freedom. For many Americans and others, this has not been so obvious; or at least it wasn’t until cases such as Hobby Lobby’s started making their way through the American court system.

That case and ones similar to it touched on other, often very complicated legal issues. This includes the matter of whether a corporate entity (such as a business) enjoys the same religious freedom protections as an individual or an explicitly religious organization such as a synagogue or a church. Another is the question of what constitutes a religious association, and whether the state is even competent to create criteria to arrive at such determinations.

But there are also more subtle ways in which the relationship between economic and religious liberty can work the other way: subtle corrosions of economic freedom can undermine religious liberty. A good example is the modern welfare state. Today, government spending, according to the OECD, consumes a minimum of 40 percent of annual GDP in virtually all Western European nations. The vast majority of this expenditure is on welfare programs.

The modern welfare state is predicated upon the choice of voters and governments to engage in some significant limitation of economic freedom. There is no welfare state, for example, without a willingness to engage in some redistribution of wealth and increase regulation. All such choices corrode, to some extent, economic freedom. For some people, the security that they believe this provides to less well-off others is worth the trade.

But what does the welfare state have to do with religious freedom? The answer is that welfare states have had a negative impact on the institutional liberty of religious organization.

Throughout much of the West, religious charitable and welfare institutions work closely with state welfare agencies. In some instances, they are heavily funded, whether indirectly or directly, by the government. These religious organizations are usually subject to the same regulations applicable to state welfare institutions, albeit with some exemptions concerning activities that such religious organizations consider intrinsically evil.

Such situations can, however, create significant difficulties for religious organizations. To the extent that a religious organization allows itself to become incorporated into the welfare state’s workings, it is bound to accept some limitations of their freedom of action. That is part-and-parcel of the welfare state’s top-down approaches to any number of economic and social problems. Another problem, however, is that state financial aid to religiously-based outreach programs to people in need can make such religious organizations very susceptible to ways of thinking and acting that steadily undermine such associations’ specific religious identity.

This is often a subtle process. As funding from government contracts begin to make up large portions of a given religious charity’s financial resources, economic reliance on such assistance can easily incentivize such organizations into avoiding any significant conflicts with government officials: including those occasions when such conflict is inevitable if the religious organization is to remain faithful to its core beliefs. It is not unknown for religious organizations receiving or seeking state contracts to downplay their religious identity precisely so they can maximize their chances of receiving such a contract. As George Weigel points it, such organizations can begin to transform themselves into “mere vehicles for the delivery of state-defined and state-approved ‘benefit’.”

It is also true that acceptance of government funding can encourage many people working in religious organizations to view government as their main authority. This should not be surprising. If 80 percent of a religious charity’s income is coming from state financial assistance and government contracts for which religious organizations compete, it would seem that the government effectively controls that religious charity’s purse-strings. And that means the state is well and truly in charge.

Does this mean that religious organizations should never work with governments in addressing issues such as poverty? No, it doesn’t. But it does mean that they should be very wary of how growing economic dependence on the state can begin to undermine their freedom as religious organizations or even their very willingness to maintain a high degree of autonomy concerning how they use the economic resources put at their disposal.

Unfortunately there seems little inclination on the part of a good number of religious charitable and welfare organizations to put some economic distance between them and the state. And that’s a shame, because, among other things, such distancing might encourage, for example, religious charities to spend more time (1) explaining to those who are members of their respective faiths why they do what they do in realms such as poverty alleviation and (2) enlightening the faithful concerning how they can support their activities, financially or otherwise.

That in turn would, I suspect, contribute to a significant revival of civil society: those organizations that exist between the family and the state that, by their very nature, expand the frontiers of freedom in a given society, and which the French social philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville saw as such a distinct part of the American experiment in ordered liberty.

Mutually reinforcing: that’s how the Founders saw the various forms of freedom. And the sooner we return to that vision of liberty, the better – for religion, for business, for everyone.

Samuel Gregg is Research Director of the Acton Institute.