Not just other-worldly concerns
by Ken Myers
“The [current] debate over religious freedom has generally assumed that the primary contest is over defining freedom, not religion. We assume that we more or less know what we are talking about when we say ‘religion’; the argument is about how much freedom religion should be granted. But the concept of religion is itself a hotly contested concept. It is, furthermore, a politically charged concept, not a neutral descriptor. In other words, what counts as religion and what does not in any given context often depends upon and instantiates a certain exercise of power, for good or for ill.
“In the context of the current debate, . . . I want to explore the usefulness of the concept of religious freedom. In doing so, I will not assume that Catholicism or Christianity more generally is a religion, and then ask what the government can do to ensure its freedom. I will instead question the assumption that Christianity is a religion to begin with, and examine both the advantages and the problems with claiming religious freedom for the church. . . . Appeals to religious freedom can be a double-edged sword.
“On the face of it, the question I’m raising seems ridiculous. Of course Christianity is a religion. A deeper look at the recent government arguments about the free exercise of religion, however, makes clear that what does and what does not count as religion is at the heart of the matter. The HHS mandate has been framed by its protagonists not as a restriction of religious liberty but is a clarification about what counts as religion and what does not. Churches, synagogues, mosques, etc., are entitled as always to exemption from having to provide insurance coverage for services that violate their principles, based on the concept of free exercise of religion. But schools, hospitals, charities, and other agencies that are affiliated with such congregations have been redefined as not essentially religious, and therefore not exempt from the mandates under the principle of religious freedom, because they do not ‘serve primarily persons who share the[ir] religious tenets,’ according to the HHS. . . . The government’s position makes a distinction between church agencies that serve a religious function and those that serve a social function. The implication is that ‘religion’ is not something that is essentially social. . . .
“[R]eligion is defined in liberal society as a matter of beliefs about the otherworldly and only indirectly applies to the social and political. In Thomas Jefferson’s words, belief in one God or twenty neither picks my pocket nor breaks my legs; in other words, religion has no immediate social effect. . . . [T]he very modern Western concept of religion was born out of the desire to identify religion as precisely that which has to do with otherworldly concerns and not with the application of public power in ‘secular’ matters such as politics and economics. . . . To resist the confinement of Christianity to concern with the otherworldly, we need a robust defense of the idea that our God is the God of all creation, and that the gospel is concerned with caring for the flourishing of the whole human person, body and soul. We need more than an appeal to freedom of belief and freedom of conscience; we need to question the modern terms under which Christianity is consigned to one side of the religious/secular dichotomy that has been constructed in liberal society. We need to ask, as Robert Shedinger puts it, ‘whether the concern so often expressed over the politicization of Islam in the contemporary world ought to be replaced by concern with the “religionization” of Christianity.’”
—from William Cavanaugh, “Are We Free Not to Be A Religion? The Ambivalence of Religious Freedom,” in Field Hospital: The Church’s Engagement with a Wounded World (Eerdmans, 2016)