Secularism And Religious Liberty

David Koyzis has linked to an NR article on Obama and religious liberty, and at one point the author, Levin, writes:

But it’s not quite that simple. This incident (and especially the nature of the exemption that the administration was willing to grant, which is essentially an exemption for actual houses of worship but not for other religiously-affiliated institutions) also sheds light on a very deeply rooted problem in our tradition of religious liberty itself—a problem that should cause those of us inclined to seek recourse in “conscience protection” and religious exemptions to pause and think.

The English common law tradition of religious toleration, which we inherited, has always had a problem with religious institutions that are not houses of worship—i.e. that are geared to ends other than the practice of religion itself. To (vastly) oversimplify for a moment, that tradition began (in the 16th century, and in some respects even earlier) with the aim of protecting Protestant dissenters and Jews but (very intentionally) not protecting Catholics. And the way it took shape over the centuries in an effort to sustain that distinction was by drawing a line between individual religious practice (in which the government could not interfere) and an institutional religious presence (which was given far less protection). Because Catholicism is a uniquely institutional religion—with large numbers of massive institutions for providing social services, educating children and adults, and the like, all of which are more or less parts of a single hierarchy—this meant Catholics were simply not granted the same protection as others. Obviously the intent to treat Catholics differently has for the most part fallen away since then, but the evolved legal tradition is very much with us, and it is not a coincidence that it always seems to be the Catholic Church that gets caught up in these situations when the government overreaches.

What this shows (obviously) is the Western tradition of religious liberty is a distinctively Protestant (insofar as magisterial Protestantism is Erastian) innovation, and it still bears the marks of this. It is worth noting, as well, that the exceptions made against Roman Catholics made more sense when Unam Sanctam was understood more rigorously, and people like Guy Fawkes actually existed. Further, it seems to me this explains why the problems we have today, in our nihilistic secularist climate, will be unsolvable by reason, since we have abandoned the underlying principles that made our tradition reasonable. Now it’s just a matter of who can get away with what, who can manipulate the government with victim-status more effectively.

This is not to say I disagree with the point that the state should limit its own interference in the affairs of the various collegia of society and the family. I just think the point I am focusing on is worth noting as well.