The Good of Religion

Yesterday I attended a discussion with Robert P. George, the Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton (which of course does not have a law school!) and one of the leading religious conservative public intellectuals in the United States. The topic was “Religious Liberty and the Human Good.” David Blankenhorn – perhaps best known recently as a failed would-be expert in the trial on the constitutionality of Proposition 8, which attempted to change California’s constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage – was the host. He is clearly smarting from the Prop 8 experience, and took some shots at President Obama along the way, but it was quite interesting nonetheless, so here’s a recap.

According to prof. George, freedom of religion is valuable for two reasons.

The less important one is that it allows the existence of organizations that provide all sorts of important social services and are authority structures that act as a buffer between the state and the individual, so that the state does not become the only source of authority. Religious organizations help prevent tyranny, which the judiciary alone is not able to do. For my part, I do not find this persuasive. There are many alternative power centres (the press and NGOs for example) and networks (online social networks for example). Religious structures are, at most, some of many, and perhaps not the best candidates as oppression-resisters (the Catholic church, for example, has a long record of collaboration with temporal powers, as well as one of resistance to them). And of course religious structures can be oppressive in their own right – though they need not be.

The more important reason why freedom of religion is important is that it serves what prof. George called “the good of religion” – that is the human ability to ask, and answer for oneself, fundamental questions about human nature, life, mortality, free will, etc. A life spent without thinking about these questions is impoverished; and it is important to have one’s own answers to them, and to live with integrity in light of the answers one comes up with. Even if these answers are not “religious” as the term is usually understood – even if they are atheistic for instance – they are worthy of protection, because it is the questioning that constitutes “the good of religion.” That seems exactly right to me, whether or not “the good of religion” is the best name for what prof. George is getting at.

A related term (which I might be more inclined to use instead) is “conscience”. Prof. George defines it as “one’s last best judgment informed by reason, belief, or faith as to what one is required to do or not to do.” Referring to Cardinal Newman’s take on the subject, he insists that it is not “in the business of permissions.”

Mr. Blakenhorn brought up the subject of “reason” in religious belief. He is mad at Judge Vaughn Walker, who presided over the trial in the Prop. 8 case, Perry v. Schwarzenegger, for finding that religious motivation could not constitute a “rational basis” for prohibiting same-sex marriage.  Prof. George agrees that religion has an element of reason – we can understand someone acting on his answers to “ultimate questions,” for instance – and argues that Judge Walker has an impoverished, “fideistic” view of religion as consisting only of faith, without a rational element. But it seems to me that the important question here, which he did not get into at all, is whether religious reason can count as a valid one for public law purposes. Even if we agree – as I do – that a person acting on religious (or conscientious) beliefs is not acting irrationally, it is a different matter whether the state (and thus voters) are entitled to act on such reasons – and still a different matter whether they are entitled to act on such reasons only – in making public policy. This is the Rawlsian public reason conundrum, which I cannot possibly get into here (and don’t have firm views about anyway).

Finally, prof. George spoke about religious exemptions – cases where a law that is generally not meant to punish or impede religious belief or practice has that effect on some believers. He thinks that these believers should be exempted from the application of such laws, unless the state can show that not granting the exemption is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling state objective. There is, however, an interesting question about who – courts or legislatures – should be deciding whether any given case comes satisfies these criteria. That is roughly what I argued in my LL.M. thesis, which was about religious exemptions, so I am glad to have my thoughts confirmed. Now why don’t the law reviews to which I submitted the paper seem interested to publish it?

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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