Why Religious and Economic Freedom Stand and Fall Together

Original Article

Donald Trump has been courting evangelicals and other social conservatives of late, from his high-profile meeting with evangelical leaders in New York City to his selection of Indiana Governor Mike Pence for his running mate. The question on many minds is whether Trump is in the middle of a slow-moving come-to-conservatism moment, or just shrewdly courting a key Republican constituency in his bid for the White House.

In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Trump never used the word “liberty” and used the word “freedom” only once, when he was denouncing free trade agreements. His pledge to overturn the Johnson Amendment is the only policy related to religious freedom that he mentioned.

That’s worrisome, not least because America needs religious freedom if it’s to prosper economically, and it needs economic freedom if it’s to maintain religious freedom. If Trump wants America “great again” on his watch, he will need to internalize and act on the truth that religious, economic and political freedom stand or fall together, and that without them America can never be great.

To be fair to Trump, even its chief defenders in the United States have been treating religious freedom mostly as if it were a special form of freedom largely disconnected from political and economic freedom. That’s a mistaken understanding, and it’s not a viable long-term strategy for protecting religious freedom.

Both economic and religious freedom tend to exist together in the same societies; they are based on the same principles. They tend to reinforce each other, and over the long haul they stand or fall together. As a result, when Christians surrender economic freedom, they unwittingly surrender their religious freedom as well.

Faith Cannot Be Coerced

As Americans, we take it for granted that people’s religious faith should not be coerced. We assume religious and political institutions should be separate. We assume that what is compelled is not true faith but mere pretense.

Ironically, this outlook is theological in origin, even for the atheists among us. Thomas Jefferson summarized the premise as well as any when he wrote in the Declaration of Independence, asserting that we are endowed by our Creator with certain “unalienable rights,” such as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” If humans have such rights by virtue of our divine origin, if we are the kind of creatures that ought to be accorded respect and given wide jurisdiction over the sorts of beliefs we affirm, then it follows that in certain matters, including religion, no one should be coerced.

The American founder George Mason made the point well in his draft of the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776), a document that later became the model for the United States Bill of Rights. There he said that “religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity toward each other.”

Note that religious freedom here is not justified by relativism — the favorite bad argument of sophomores — but by reference to religion, by which Mason meant the duty that each of us owes to God. The basis for religious liberty is itself religious.

A Universal Human Right

Religion made the truth plain to them, but they did not hold that the truth was private to a particular religious tradition. That is, George Mason, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and other American founders did not think they were invoking a parochial custom that they picked up from their European heritage. They claimed, rather, that these rights were universal. They even went so far as to claim that the rights to life and liberty were self-evident. That is, if you understand the truth about man, then you will simply see by reason that such rights obtain.

The American founders also were acutely aware of past religious conflicts, not just in far-away England but in the early American colonies as well. Although the founders were theologically diverse, they all believed that both God and the moral law could be known by reason and should inform our legal and political lives.

These dual convictions led them to defend the public expression of religious faith and public morality while refusing to establish a national religion. Instead, they opted for widespread religious liberty, which meant that citizens could bring their religious convictions into the public square.

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution captures their balanced approach: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” A just and limited state must recognize domains and institutions outside its jurisdiction. Such “prepolitical realities” include the right of every human being to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The right to liberty, in turn, implies a right to free speech, to freedom of association and to freedom of religion.

What’s economic freedom? It’s the social condition in which individuals, families and associations enjoy the rule of law, respect for their rights, limited government, a vibrant civil society outside the jurisdiction of the state, well-delineated rights to private property and contracts, and broad discretion on economic matters. A society enjoys economic freedom if it’s easy to start a business; to look for a job; to hire employees without invasive dictates from political authorities, private cartels or organized crime; to freely negotiate salary, benefits and responsibilities; and to have fair contracts enforced. (These things taken together have been proven to help economies grow more prosperous.)

Now notice that the basis for religious freedom rests on the same foundation as the case for economic freedom: individual rights, freedom of association and the family, and a limited government.

Economic freedom just as much as religious freedom requires limited government: a “government limited by laws.” The government helps create and maintain the public space (along with other institutions of civil society) where free economic decisions can be made. Economic freedom is at its greatest at a sweet spot on a spectrum between anarchy at one extreme and statism on the other. A society in which the strong are “free” to prey on and enslave the weak is not economically free. Neither is a society free when all economic decisions are made by government bureaucrats.

Because the economic and religious realms involve man as an individual, as a member of a family, and as a member of society, it’s folly to imagine that we can cordon off our religious freedom from our economic freedom.

An economically free environment is likely to be religiously free as well, and vice versa. It is a virtuous circle. Similarly, where our economic freedom is restrained, either by the state or by general lawlessness, our religious freedom is likely to suffer as well. This is a vicious circle.

As a result, if we wish to preserve our religious freedom, we need to energetically defend both economic and religious freedom, framed in a way that makes it clear that these two freedoms, these two liberties, are mutually reinforcing and indivisible.

Jay W. Richards

Senior Fellow at Discovery, Senior Research Fellow at Heritage Foundation
Jay W. Richards, Ph.D., is the William E. Simon Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a Senior Fellow at the Discovery Institute, and the Executive Editor of The Stream. Richards is author or editor of more than a dozen books, including the New York Times bestsellers Infiltrated (2013) and Indivisible (2012); The Human Advantage; Money, Greed, and God, winner of a 2010 Templeton Enterprise Award; The Hobbit Party with Jonathan Witt; and Eat, Fast, Feast. His most recent book, with Douglas Axe and William Briggs, is The Price of Panic: How the Tyranny of Experts Turned a Pandemic Into a Catastrophe.