Religion and Liberty

Before you read the following post, you should know that I am an agnostic, not a person of religion. I was raised in the Roman Catholic faith but abandoned that faith more than two-thirds of a lifetime ago.

Many libertarians — especially the strident atheists among them — are quick to say that religious morality is unnecessary because morality — standards of right and wrong — can be supplied by other sources: libertarianism, for example. There’s something to that, if you can bring yourself to believe that the gospel of Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, and Friedrich Hayek could attract a much wider audience than its present, minuscule, market share.

For libertarianism to grow and thrive, it must be planted in fertile ground. As Jennifer Roback Morse wrote in “Marriage and the Limits of Contract,”

[l]ibertarians recognize that a free market needs a culture of law-abidingness, promise-keeping, and respect for contracts. . . . A culture full of people who violate their contracts at every possible opportunity cannot be held together by legal institutions, as the experience of post-communist Russia plainly shows.

Neither the state nor the stateless Utopia of anarcho-capitalist dreams can ensure a moral society, that is, one in which there is law-abidingness, promise-keeping, and respect for contracts. Where, then, do we turn for moral education? To the public schools, whose unionized teachers preach the virtues of moral relativism, big government, income redistribution, and non-judgmentalism (lack of personal repsonsibility)? I hardly think so.

That leaves us with religion, especially religion in the Judeo-Christian tradition. As the Catholic Encyclopedia puts it:

The precepts [of the last six of the Commandments] are meant to protect man in his natural rights against the injustice of his fellows.

  • His life is the object of the Fifth;
  • the honour of his body as well as the source of life, of the Sixth;
  • his lawful possessions, of the Seventh;
  • his good name, of the Eighth;
  • And in order to make him still more secure in the enjoyment of his rights, it is declared an offense against God to desire to wrong him, in his family rights by the Ninth;
  • and in his property rights by the Tenth.

I am neither a person of faith nor a natural-rights libertarian, but I would gladly live in a society in which the majority of my fellow citizens believed in and adhered to the Ten Commandments, especially the last six of them. I reject the currently fashionable notion that religion per se breeds violence. In fact, a scholarly, non-sectarian paper offers good evidence that religiosity leads to good behavior:

. . . We will define religious activities as[:] (1) Attendance to religious activities, (2) Salience or importance of God to one’s self, (3) Denomination, (4) Frequency of prayer, (5) Bible studies, and (6) Religious activities outside of church. . . .

Some of the studies reported in this speculative review used multidimensional means of measuring religiosity with consistency. Of these reports nearly all found that that there was a significant negative correlation between religiosity and delinquency. This was further substantiated by studies using longitudinal and operationally reliable definitions. Of the early reports which were either inconclusive or found no statistical correlation, not one utilized a multidimensional definition or any sort of reliability factor. We maintain that the cause of this difference in findings stemmed from methodological factors as well as different and perhaps flawed research strategies that were employed by early sociological and criminological researchers.

The studies that we reviewed were of high research caliber and showed that the inverse relationship [between religiosity and delinquincy] does in fact exist. It therefore appears that religion is both a short term and long term mitigat[o]r of delinquency.

But a society in which behavior is guided by the Ten Commandments seems to be receding into the past. Consider these statistics, from InfoPlease: Between 1990 and 2001

  • the fraction of American adults claiming to belong to a Christian religion dropped from 86.4 percent to 76.7 percent, and
  • the fraction of American adults claiming to be of the Jewish faith dropped from 1.8 percent to 1.4 percent.

What’s noteworthy about those figures is the degree of slippage in a span of 11 years. The absolute values, of course, overstate the degree of adherence to formal religion because respondents tend to say the “right” thing, which (oddly enough) continues to be a profession of religious faith. If Bill Clinton (among others) can claim to be a “religious” person, who could not?

The good news is that most of the slippage in stated attendance is among the major, old-line denominations: the post-Vatican II Roman Catholic Church and the Baptists, Methodists, Lutherans, and Presbyterians. Those denominations, or large segments of them, have slid away from the Ten Commandments in order to be more “relevant” — thus evidently becoming less “relevant.”

The bad news is that claiming adherence to a religion and receiving religious “booster shots” through regular church attendance are two entirely different things. Consider this excerpt of the cover story (“In Search of the Spiritual“) in the August 29 – September 5 issue of Newsweek:

Of 1,004 respondents to the NEWSWEEK/Beliefnet Poll, 45 percent said they attend worship services weekly, virtually identical to the figure (44 percent) in a Gallup poll cited by Time in 1966. Then as now, however, there is probably a fair amount of wishful thinking in those figures; researchers who have done actual head counts in churches think the figure is probably more like 20 percent [link added: ED]. There has been a particular falloff in attendance by African-Americans, for whom the church is no longer the only respectable avenue of social advancement, according to Darren Sherkat, a sociologist at Southern Illinois University. The fastest-growing category on surveys that ask people to give their religious affiliation, says Patricia O’Connell Killen of Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash., is “none.” But “spirituality,” the impulse to seek communion with the Divine, is thriving. The NEWSWEEK/Beliefnet Poll found that more Americans, especially those younger than 60, described themselves as “spiritual” (79 percent) than “religious” (64 percent). Almost two thirds of Americans say they pray every day, and nearly a third meditate.

But what does “spirituality” have to do with morality? Prayer and meditation may be useful and even necessary to religion, but they do not teach morality. Substituting “spirituality” for Judeo-Christian religiosity is like watching golf matches on TV instead of playing golf; a watcher can talk a good game but cannot play the game very well, if at all.

Historian Niall Ferguson, a Briton, writes about the importance of religiosity in “A loss of faith fans the fire of fanaticism“:

I am not sure British people are necessarily afraid of religion, but they are certainly not much interested in it these days. Indeed, the decline of Christianity — not just in Britain but across Europe — stands out as one of the most remarkable phenomena of our times.

There was a time when Europe would justly refer to itself as “Christendom.” Europeans built the Continent’s loveliest edifices to accommodate their acts of worship. They quarreled bitterly over the distinction between transubstantiation and consubstantiation. As pilgrims, missionaries and conquistadors, they sailed to the four corners of the Earth, intent on converting the heathen to the true faith.

Now it is Europeans who are the heathens. . . .

The exceptionally low level of British religiosity was perhaps the most striking revelation of a recent ICM poll [link added: ED]. One in five Britons claim to “attend an organized religious service regularly,” less than half the American figure. [In light of the relationship between claimed and actual church attendance, discussed above, the actual figure for Britons is probably about 10 percent: ED.] Little more than a quarter say that they pray regularly, compared with two-thirds of Americans and 95 percent of Nigerians. And barely one in 10 Britons would be willing to die for our God or our beliefs, compared with 71 percent of Americans. . . .

Chesterton feared that if Christianity declined, “superstition” would “drown all your old rationalism and skepticism.” When educated friends tell me that they have invited a shaman to investigate their new house for bad juju, I see what Chesterton meant. Yet it is not the spread of such mumbo-jumbo that concerns me as much as the moral vacuum that de-Christianization has created. Sure, sermons are sometimes dull and congregations often sing out of tune. But, if nothing else, a weekly dose of Christian doctrine helps to provide an ethical framework for life. And it is not clear where else such a thing is available in modern Europe.

Over the last few weeks [since the terrorist attacks of 7/7: ED], Britons have heard a great deal from Tony Blair and others about the threat posed to their “way of life” by Muslim extremists such as Muktar Said Ibrahim. But how far has their own loss of religious faith turned Britain into a soft target — not so much for the superstition Chesterton feared, but for the fanaticism of others?

 

Yes, what “way of life” is being threatened — and is therefore deemed worth defending — when people do not share a strong moral bond?

That the moral bond of Judeo-Christianity also has weakened on this side of the Atlantic is evidenced by the rising tide of “foxhole rats” in our midst: post-patriotic and undoubtedly anti-religious Leftists for whom America is just an arbitrary geopolitical entity.

The weakening of Judeo-Christianity in America is owed to enemies within (established religions trying in vain to be “relevant”) and to enemies without (Leftists and nihilistic libertarians who seek every opportunity to denigrate religion). Thus the opponents of religiosity seized on the homosexual scandals in the Catholic Church not to attack homosexuality (which would go against the attackers’ party line) but to attack the Church, which teaches that acts of the kind that were committed by a relatively small number of priests are, in fact, immoral.

Then there is the relentless depiction of Catholicism as an accomplice to Hitler’s brutality, about which my son writes in his review of Rabbi David G. Dalin’s The Myth of Hitler’s Pope: How Pius XII Rescued Jews from the Nazis:

Despite the misleading nature of the controversy — one which Dalin questions from the outset — the first critics of the wartime papacy were not Jews. Among the worst attacks were those of leftist non-Jews, such as Carlo Falconi (author of The Silence of Pius XII), not to mention German liberal Rolf Hochhuth, whose 1963 play, The Deputy, set the tone for subsequent derogatory media portrayals of wartime Catholicism. By contrast, says Dalin, Pope Pius XII “was widely praised [during his lifetime] for having saved hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives during the Holocaust.” He provides an impressive list of Jews who testified on the pope’s behalf, including Albert Einstein, Golda Meir and Chaim Weizmann. Dalin believes that to “deny and delegitimize their collective memory and experience of the Holocaust,” as some have done, “is to engage in a subtle yet profound form of Holocaust denial.”

The most obvious source of the black legend about the papacy emanated from Communist Russia, a point noted by the author. There were others with an axe to grind. As revealed in a recent issue of Sandro Magister’s Chiesa, liberal French Catholic Emmanuel Mounier began implicating Pius XII in “racist” politics as early as 1939. Subsequent detractors have made the same charge, working (presumably) from the same bias.

While the immediate accusations against Pius XII lie at the heart of Dalin’s book, he takes his analysis a step further. The vilification of the pope can only be understood in terms of a political agenda — the “liberal culture war against tradition.” . . .

Rabbi Dalin sums it up best for all people of traditional moral and political beliefs when he urges us to recall the challenges that faced Pius XII in which the “fundamental threats to Jews came not from devoted Christians — they were the prime rescuers of Jewish lives in the Holocaust — but from anti-Catholic Nazis, atheistic Communists, and… Hitler’s mufti in Jerusalem.”

I believe that incessant attacks on religion have helped to push people — especially young adults — away from religion, to the detriment of liberty. It’s not surprising that modern liberals tend to be anti-religious, for they disdain the tenets of personal responsibility and liberty that are contained in the last six of the Ten Commandments. It is disheartening, however, when libertarians join the anti-religious chorus. They know not what they do when they join the Left in tearing down a bulwark of civil society, without which liberty cannot prevail.

Humans need no education in aggression and meddling; those come to us naturally. But we do need to learn to take responsibility for our actions and to leave others alone — and we need to learn those things when we are young. Public schools can’t foster that learning, nor can a relative handful of libertarians. Parents can do it, if they have the right background for it; that background is to be found in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Most importantly, children can learn for themselves, if they are raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Am I being hypcritical because I am unchurched and my children were not taken to church? Perhaps, but my religious upbringing imbued in me a strong sense of morality, which I tried — successfully, I think — to convey to my children. But as time passes the moral lessons we older Americans learned through religion will attenuate unless those lessons are taught, anew, to younger generations.

Rather than join the Left in attacking the Judeo-Christian tradition, libertarians ought to accommodate themselves to it and even encourage its acceptance — for liberty’s sake. There is much to gain and — given the separation of church and state, which most religionists prefer — almost nothing to lose.

Related posts:

More Things a Libertarian Can Believe In
(07/11/04)
Libertarian Conservative or Conservative Libertarian (07/29/04)
Hobbesian Libertarianism (10/08/04)
The State of Nature (12/05/04)
Libertarianism and Conservatism (12/05/04)
Going Too Far with the First Amendment? (01/01/05)
Atheism, Religion, and Science (01/03/05)
The Limits of Science (01/05/05)
Three Perspectives on Life: A Parable (01/15/05)
Beware of Irrational Atheism (01/22/05)
Judeo-Christian Values and Liberty (02/20/05)
The Creation Model (02/23/05)
Libertarianism, Marriage, and the True Meaning of Family Values (04/06/05)
Religion and Personal Responsibility (04/08/05)
Free Will: A Proof by Example? (04/09/05)
Where Conservatism and (Sensible) Libertarianism Come Together (04/19/05)
A Renewed Respect? (04/19/05)
Conservatism, Libertarianism, and Public Morality (04/25/05)
Evolution and Religion (07/25/05)
Moral Issues (07/26/05)
Shall We All Hang Separately? (08/13/05)
Foxhole Rats (08/14/05)
Words of Caution for Scientific Dogmatists (08/19/05)
Foxhole Rats, Redux (08/22/05)