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Religious Liberty and Economic Freedom: Intellectual and Practical Paradoxes

by Dr. Samuel Gregg

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    The role of economic liberty in contributing to human flourishing and the common good remains deeply under-appreciated, even by those who are dedicated to religious liberty. This article is adapted from an address delivered at the conference Faith, State, and the Economy: Perspectives from East and West at the Pontifical Gregorian University on April 29, 2014.
  • Larger Work:
    Public Discourse
  • Publisher & Date:
    The Witherspoon Institute, June 5, 2014

One hardly need say that religious liberty is a subject of some urgency for many Christians today. In some cases, it is literally a matter of life and death. Every day we read of the brutal killing of Christians in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. Sometimes this has more to do with ethnic and political rivalries than with religion per se. But at least some of the violence flows precisely from antagonism toward Christianity as a religion.

In the West, the situation is certainly different. But can anyone seriously dispute that some governments seem anxious to empty the concept of religious liberty of any meaningful content? Often this is done, strangely enough, in the name of tolerance or equality.

One reason for maintaining strong religious liberty protections is that if governments can substantially nullify religious liberty, they are also capable of repressing any other civil or political freedom—including that of non-believers. It is rare, however, for religious liberty’s defenders to list economic freedom as one of the rights that can be easily suppressed once religious freedom is effectively undermined.

Religious Liberty and Participation in Public Life

One prominent unjust restriction upon religious liberty has been the placing of formal limitations on the ability of members of particular faiths to participate fully in public life. One example is that of Catholics who lived in the England of Elizabeth I and James I. During this period, the English parliament passed a series of acts that gradually stripped Catholics in England of most of their political rights because of their refusal to conform to the Church of England.

The limitations on Catholics’ freedom, however, went beyond this. Usually overlooked is the regime’s attack on English Catholics’ economic freedoms. This came in the form of crippling fines levied on recalcitrant Catholics by governments that, not coincidentally, were short on revenue. The same governments restricted the types of commercially related activities Catholics were allowed to pursue. Incidentally, similar economic restrictions were endured by those Protestants who refused to embrace the Elizabethan religious settlement. Many consequently migrated to America.

I suspect that most people, including some Americans, don’t know that some of these infringements on religious freedom eventually crossed the Atlantic. Take, for instance, the colony of Maryland, founded in 1632 by English Catholics fleeing religious repression. Interestingly, these Catholics insisted on religious tolerance for all Christians in their colony. This resulted in the 1649 Maryland Toleration Act, one of the first laws ever passed that granted religious tolerance to every Trinitarian Christian.

Unfortunately, anti-Catholic laws similar to those in England eventually prevailed in Maryland. For our purposes, however, we should note that economic motives played just as significant a role as anti-Catholic animus in driving this change. 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 at the time—could not refrain from noting, “Selfish men invented the religious tests to exclude from posts of profit & trust their weaker or more conscientious fellow subjects.”

Here, however, is one of the economic paradoxes of suppression of religious liberty. Limiting a religious group’s participation in political life often results in its members focusing on realizing economic success. Consider, for example, the case of those perennial entrepreneurs: Arab Christians.

Religious Repression and Economic Success

Until the beginning of the twentieth century, Christians constituted almost 25 percent of the Middle East’s population. Less well-known is the fact that Middle Eastern Christians traded extensively with their co-religionists throughout the Mediterranean for centuries. They thus played a major role in facilitating East-West commercial exchange between the Christian and Muslim worlds.

Obviously, the economic success of Middle Eastern Christians has something to do with geography. But another cause may well have been the second-class legal status imposed upon some Arab Christians from the seventh century onwards. In his magisterial History of the Arab Peoples, the late Albert Hourani, Oxford Arabist and historian, relates that Christians in parts of the Middle East were forced to wear special clothes identifying them as non-Muslims. Apart from being obliged to pay a special tax, Christians were also banned from carrying weapons and frequently inhibited from participation in political life. Hourani notes, however, that these constraints resulted in many Christians focusing their attention on those aspects of the economy where they were allowed some liberty. Eventually Middle East Christians, according to Hourani, dominated particular spheres of economic life throughout the region, including merchant shipping and banking.

The Church and the Welfare State

The relationship between economic and religious liberty can, however, work the other way: subtle corrosion 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 willingness of governments to significantly limit economic freedom. You cannot have large welfare states without extensive regulation, higher taxes, and some redistribution of wealth. All such choices corrode, to some extent, economic freedom. But what does the welfare state have to do with religious liberty? Put simply, there is much to indicate that welfare states have had a negative impact on the Church’s institutional liberty.

Throughout much of the West, Catholic charitable institutions collaborate closely with state welfare agencies. In some cases, they are heavily funded, directly and indirectly, by the government. In most instances, these Church organizations are subject to the same regulations applicable to state welfare institutions, albeit with (a shrinking number of) exemptions concerning activities that the Church considers intrinsically evil.

Part of the problem is philosophical rather than economical per se. As the distinguished American Catholic historian James Hitchcock observes, today’s welfare states are thoroughly grounded upon secularist assumptions about the human person. Since orthodox secularism is based on a hedonistic and nominalist view of man, it is obviously quite different from the understanding of the person articulated in classical Christian anthropology and the natural law. Clashes between these visions explain some governments’ efforts to force Catholic charitable agencies to align themselves with particular secular welfare practices.

But another aspect of the problem is surely the nature of the modern welfare state itself. It cannot help but encourage monolithic approaches to social and economic problems. That is partly because of the welfare state’s top-down approach to society’s challenges. It is also partly a result of modern welfare states’ inevitably bureaucratic character.

This situation has created two difficulties for the Church. First, to the extent that church organizations allow themselves to become incorporated into the welfare state’s workings, their independence of action can become compromised. Second, government funding of church outreach programs to those in need can make such institutions very susceptible to secularist ways of thinking.

How so? As the funds from state contracts begin constituting a significant part of Catholic organizations’ financial resources, reliance on such support creates incentives for such agencies to avoid confrontations with state authorities. It is not unknown for Catholic agencies receiving or seeking government contracts to subtly downplay their Catholic identity. They begin to morph into what George Weigel aptly describes as “mere vehicles for the delivery of state-defined and state-approved ‘benefit’” rather than seeking to live out Christ’s commandment to love our neighbor in ways consistent with the truth revealed by Christ to His Church.

Then there is the depressing fact that acceptance of government funding can encourage many people working in Catholic organizations to view the state as their primary master. This should not be surprising. If 70 percent of a Catholic charity’s income is derived from government subsidies and contracts, the government has effectively become their paymaster.

In principle, the Church has nothing against Catholic organizations working with governments or receiving public funding for purposes such as outreach to the poor. Given, however, the ways in which accepting such funding can subtly diminish the liberty of the Church itself, now is surely the time for Catholics to ask ourselves—and our bishops—some hard questions about the general prudence of the Church in accepting government financial assistance.

Can Market Freedom Advance Religious Belief?

A growth in economic freedom can also positively affect religious liberty. Take the example of mainland China.

Since the early 1980s, China has opened up much of its economy to the world and permitted a degree of private ownership and entrepreneurship. The economic results are well-documented. That’s not to say that China is a model of the market economy. China’s economy is plagued with corruption and rampant crony capitalism. The Chinese Communist Party, military, and government remain major shareholders in thousands of businesses, including, most worryingly, Chinese banks. That said, China is unquestionably more economically free than it was during the dark years of Chairman Mao.

In those Chinese provinces that have been permitted to liberalize their economies, millions of Chinese citizens have embraced Christianity. This is logical. Once you allow more liberty in one area, it is hard to stop freedom from spreading to other spheres of life. Economic liberty, for instance, requires and encourages people to think and choose freely. Without this, free exchange is impossible. It is, however, difficult to limit this reflection and choosing to economic questions. Eventually people will start asking social questions, political questions, and, yes, religious questions. And millions of Chinese have decided Christianity is the answer to their religious ponderings.

This has created immense dilemmas for China’s rulers. On the one hand, China’s president has publicly stated that China is “losing its moral compass” and that religion can “help fill a void that has allowed corruption to flourish.” But the regime also knows that most Christian confessions deny that the state can exercise any religious authority over the church. Such a claim is unacceptable to China’s present rulers because it implicitly challenges the Chinese Communist Party’s insistence that all institutions must be subordinate to its leading role.

This helps explain why the regime persecutes Chinese Catholics who openly insist upon loyalty to the pope, and cracks down whenever Christianity seems to be acquiring wider momentum. In one of China’s wealthiest eastern provinces, Zhejiang, for example, Evangelical Christianity is flourishing. As a result, Evangelical churches are being told to remove their crosses and threatened with having their buildings demolished. The good news, however, is that Evangelical Chinese preachers are publicly denouncing the government’s actions.

As social scientists rightly remind us, correlation does not indicate causation. The fact, however, that many Evangelical ministers in this economically successful and increasingly Christian Chinese province are publicly telling the authorities to back off surely shows us that once the freedom genie is out of the bottle, it is very hard to put it back in. Plainly, religious freedom is not yet a reality in mainland China. Yet, thanks in some part to China’s haphazard market liberalization, bottom-up pressures for a fuller realization of religious liberty are growing.

Of course, the material and economic goods produced through human freedom and enterprise have their own value—but they do not last. Like all worldly things, they eventually disappear from our lives. What do last are those basic moral and spiritual goods developed through human choice and action—including those developed in the economy.

Nevertheless, the role of economic liberty in contributing to human flourishing and the common good remains deeply underappreciated, even by those who are dedicated to religious liberty. Economic liberty is not an absolute. Neither is religious freedom. Both are, however, rooted in the truth about man that we find in Christian anthropology and the natural law: the truth that is knowable through Revelation and right reason. And in the end, these are the only foundations that make all authentic forms of freedom—religious, political, and economic—truly reasonable, fully life-giving, and genuinely indivisible.

Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. This article is adapted from an address delivered at the conference Faith, State, and the Economy: Perspectives from East and West at the Pontifical Gregorian University on 29 April 2014.

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