By Dr Ryan Messmore
What’s the most significant threat to religious liberty in the West?
The violence of radical protest groups? Lawsuits of secularists bent on scrubbing religion from the public square?
Or might a more pernicious because more subtle threat lie at hand: the narrowing of religious liberty to a mere “freedom of worship”?
A robust freedom of religion protects the ability to live out one’s faith in the day-to-day activities and decision-making of public life.
A watered-down freedom of worship, by contrast, protects just the ability to profess the faith, and join the church, of one’s choice.
Unfortunately, recent events in the US suggest a weakening of robust religious freedom.
While churches continue to be able to preach and administer sacraments, religious institutions and organisations face critical challenges to their freedom.
A key issue undergirding these developments is the way modern Western societies, including Australia, understand religion.
Assumptions about the nature of religion affect which people and institutions are considered religious.
This, in turn, shapes views about what religious freedom protects and who should enjoy that protection.
Should it extend only to a small subset of the population, for example, to churches and monasteries, pastors and nuns?
Or should religious freedom apply to a broader range of groups and citizens, including schools and hospitals as well as teachers, doctors and directors of charities?
Today, many popular assumptions about religion reflect a potent dualism separating the public and private.
The public sphere is held to be the arena of politics, economics and science the realm of facts and reason. Conversely, we’re told that the private sphere is home to family and church the realm of values and faith.
This way of thinking inevitably relegates religion to a private, marginalized corner of life.
According to Yale University law professor Stephen Carter, “We often ask our citizens to split their public and private selves, telling them in effect that it is fine to be religious in private, but there is something askew when those private beliefs become the basis for public action.”
A narrow, privatised concept of religion can lead to the assumption that religious freedom extends only to a small subset of institutions and activities (like prayer and preaching).
Other kinds of activity like treating a sick patient, running a school, or developing a benevolent association don’t often fall within narrow understandings of religious activity, even if such work is inspired and shaped by one’s faith.
A case in point is the US Department of Health and Human Services’ mandate within Obamacare.
The mandate forces all employers offering group health insurance to cover abortion-inducing drugs, contraception and other items the employer may consider immoral.
The policy contains a religious exemption for organisations that meet several criteria: they must have as their primary purpose the inculcation of religious values and employ and serve only members of their own faith.
The notion of religion at work here is very narrow. Churches and synagogues fit the bill, but religious hospitals, schools, and other charitable organisations don’t.
Not even Jesus or Mother Teresa would meet the HHS definition of “religious”, for they ministered to hurting people without stopping to inquire about religious affiliation.
This exemption reveals a view of religion as something having to do merely with doctrines and spiritual beliefs, something only to be preached about and celebrated in seminaries and worship services.
It therefore ignores the religious identity of many other kinds of activities and institutions, including faith-based ministries, hospitals and universities.
I have a particular interest in the latter category.
Recently, my family moved to Australia in preparation for me to serve as president of Campion College, a Catholic tertiary institution in Sydney that offers Australia’s only undergraduate degree in the liberal arts.
It also provides an educational alternative to modern dualism by integrating the humanities and sciences, faith and reason.
To make their distinct contribution, institutions such as Campion College must be free to sustain distinct habits and practices.
At Campion, these include celebrating the Eucharist daily, wearing academic gowns during weekly formal dinners, caring for students as entire persons, fostering discernment of their future career paths, displaying artwork and imagery that honours our history and tradition, and upholding core principles that govern the hiring of employees as well as behaviour in the residence halls.
These are not incidental trivialities or peculiar ornamentation added to the real stuff of education.
Rather, they’re essential in accomplishing Campion’s mission of transforming students who can transform the world. Societies, even highly secularised ones, need to safeguard space for public forms of religion and religious communities in their midst.
Protecting a robust sense of religious liberty not only protects the integrity of faith-based organisations, it also frees them to serve the common good in their distinct way.
This article draws upon the Centre for Independent Studies’ 2012 Acton Lecture, which Ryan Messmore delivered recently in Sydney. Dr Messmore will assume the presidency of Campion College in December.