Freedom Watch

Religious Freedom and Economic Liberty: Truly Indivisible

Freedom's robustness requires interdependency.

By 5.8.14

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Whichever way the United States Supreme Court rules on Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, one fact has become abundantly clear. We are belatedly realizing that different forms of freedom are more dependent on each other than many have hitherto supposed.

Who would have thought that the welfare state’s expansion in the guise of Obamacare—which, by definition, significantly reduces economic freedom—would directly impact the ability of individuals and groups to conduct their affairs in accordance with their deeply held religious beliefs? This, however, is precisely the reality confronting us.

Most people are used to thinking of religious liberty as a prerequisite for political freedom. But religious freedom doesn’t just concern our role as citizens in the public square. Religious liberty also concerns our freedom to choose in numerous non-political aspects of our lives, ranging from whether we attend church on a given day of the week, to what we choose to purchase.

Unjust restrictions on religious liberty often come in the form of limiting the ability of members of particular faiths to participate fully in public life. Catholics in the England of Elizabeth I and James I, for instance, were gradually stripped of most of their civil and political rights because of their refusal to conform to the established Church.

The assault on their freedom, however, went beyond this. Perhaps even more damaging was the attack on their economic liberty. This came in the form of crippling fines being levied on recalcitrant Catholics by governments short on revenue, not to mention restrictions on Catholics’ ability to own and use their property as they saw fit.

Many such laws, Americans should never forget, crossed the Atlantic. Though the Maryland colony was founded by English Catholics fleeing religious repression, anti-Catholic laws similar to those in Britain eventually prevailed. As the most famous of Maryland Catholics, Charles Carroll of Carrollton—the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence and the wealthiest man in the American colonies—observed, economic motives often underlay such harassment.  “Selfish men,” he wrote, “invented the religious tests to exclude from posts of profit & trust their weaker or more conscientious fellow subjects.”

Generally speaking, religious dissidents have proved remarkably adept at circumventing such restrictions. Indeed, there’s some evidence that limiting a religious group’s participation in political life often results in them focusing their talents upon economic success. Consider, for instance, the case of those perennial entrepreneurs: Arab Christians.

Until relatively recently, Christians were Lebanon’s largest religious community. For centuries, they traded extensively with their co-religionists throughout the Mediterranean, thereby facilitating East-West commercial exchange. Besides geography, however, another cause of Middle Eastern Christians’ commercial success may well have been the second-class legal status imposed upon them by their Muslim conquerors from the 7th century onwards.

In his History of the Arab Peoples, the late Albert Hourani relates that Christians (overwhelmingly Orthodox, Catholic, or Coptic) were forced to wear special clothes identifying them as non-Muslims. They were also obliged to pay a special tax, banned from carrying weapons, and sporadically persecuted. Hourani notes, however, that these constraints pushed many Christians into commercial endeavors. Eventually they dominated many economic spheres, including merchant shipping and banking.

A similar tale can be told about the Jewish people. In the not-so-recent past, being Jewish meant you couldn’t participate in politics or serve in the military and civil service in the Christian and Islamic worlds. Many Jews were consequently left with little else to do but create wealth.

One piece of good news—and further evidence of freedom’s indivisibility—is the way in which expansions of economic freedom can create pressures for enhanced religious liberty. Mainland China is perhaps the best example.

Over the past thirty years, China has embraced some economic freedom. Less known is that it’s in those Chinese provinces permitted to somewhat liberalize their economies that millions of Chinese have embraced Christianity.

This shouldn’t surprise us. Once you grant liberty in one area, it’s hard to preclude freedom from spreading to other spheres. Economic liberty, for instance, requires and encourages people to think and choose freely. Without this, entrepreneurship is impossible. It’s challenging, however, to limit this reflection and choosing to economic questions. People start asking social questions, political questions, and, yes, religious questions. And many Chinese have decided Christianity is the answer to their religious ponderings.

That has created acute dilemmas for China’s rulers. On the one hand, the regime claims to value the contribution of many religions’ strict moral codes to economic life. President Xi Jinping has publicly stated that China is “losing its moral compass” and that “traditional” Chinese faiths such as Confucianism and Taoism could “help fill a void that has allowed corruption to flourish.”

But the regime also knows Christianity denies that the state can exercise religious authority over the church. Such a claim is unacceptable to China’s present rulers. Why? Because it implicitly challenges the ruling elite’s monopoly of power. Hence we see the regime persecuting Catholics who insist upon loyalty to the pope. In one of China’s wealthiest eastern provinces, Zhejiang, Evangelical churches are being told to remove their crosses and threatened with having their buildings demolished.

As social scientists rightly remind us, correlation doesn’t mean causation. The fact, however, that many Evangelical preachers in this economically successful and increasingly Christian Chinese province are publicly telling the authorities to back off tells us that once the freedom-genie is out of the bottle, it’s tricky to put it back in.

Plainly, religious freedom isn’t yet a reality in China. But thanks partly to China’s haphazard market-liberalization, its flourishing seems less far off. How sadly ironic it would be if we in the West—the birthplace of religious freedom—allow secular-progressivism’s steady chipping-away at economic freedom, in the name of an impossible-to-realize equality of starting point, middle point and end point, to reduce the first and most fundamental of freedoms to a relic of our history.

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About the Author
Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored several books including Becoming Europe and most recently Tea Party Catholic.