Have you noticed that when some people speak of religious liberty, they mean something different from individual religious liberty? They use the same term but they mean something else. In fact, there are two distinct approaches to religious freedom: majoritarian and individual.

Protestants and Enlightenment philosophers, from the founding era of our nation, tended to view the church and voluntary religious societies as the outworking of individuals in agreement with each other on matters of belief and practice. A church exercises authority delegated to it by its members and subject to the control of the people via constitutions and bills of rights. In this way, church and state on the federal level were to remain separate; and even among the states they were in various degrees of separation. Thus, our nation was established on principles of individual religious freedom, a freedom that also encompassed the voluntary associations in churches.

The view of churches as the product of personal choices developed in contrast to the historic reality of "Christendom," a unique blending of religion, culture, and society. For centuries government and religion were two parts of one society. In both Roman Catholic Europe and the emerging Protestant countries, society was seen as before and above the individual, but not as the product of the people's choices. The church and the state were seen as ordained by God, established to reveal the complete will of God for society. The church and the state were the essence of society, while individuals' lives were molded by both. The church, whether Catholic or Protestant, shaped the individual according to its teachings, while the state controlled the people by its laws formed in harmony with the teachings of an established church. Thus, the individual's mind and body was not their own, per se, but the domain of the church and the state or the society.

This basic historical difference leads to either an individualist or a communitarian approach to defining religious liberty. In the former perspective, religious freedom was defined as beginning with the individual conscience and ending with the people determining the role of the church and the state in relation to the individual's rights. In the latter perspective, religious freedom is defined on a communitarian basis in that the individual's rights are shaped and determined by the needs of the community as directed by the church and, ultimately, the state. The two approaches are diametrically opposed. By way of comparison, Islam in various Muslim countries is communitarian in outlook.

Thus, in our day many Christian leaders express an essentially communitarian ideal when they speak of America as a Christian nation. They think of religious liberty in these terms, that the nation must first and foremost uphold its social and legal commitments to being Christian, while still respecting the rights of others to their own beliefs and observances. Many enduring church-state battles begin to make sense when this is understood. Thus, for example, arguments over prayer and Bible reading in the public schools reflect the conflict between communitarian values ("Of course a Christian nation must conduct devotional services in our public institutions!") and the individual value ("no student should be made to feel excluded by the religious practices of the majority").

When communitarian values prevail, individual rights are subordinate. Yet when individual rights prevail, communitarians argue that the state subordinates religion to a purely private matter, thereby diminishing the rights and respect for religious institutions and the Christian society itself. Thus, communitarians see the emphasis on individual rights as sowing the seeds for the destruction of the society. By contrast, the individual rights perspective views communitarian arguments with suspicion, convinced that the communitarian approach tramples on the rights of individual conscience, especially of those belonging to minority religions.

Christian nation advocates, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, seek a common agreement among all Christians, and reinterpret our nation's history by applying the basic assumptions of Christendom thinking. For them, the First Amendment cannot mean what the Supreme Court says it means, because that would have meant our Founders intended to dismantle "Christendom." Precisely! Instead, such Christian nation advocates insist that our Constitution was intended to uphold and preserve the Christian society and culture, and to shape our nation based squarely on legislating the Ten Commandments as the basis of all civil laws. Today's secular government profoundly undermines the influence of Christian religion, thus leading to the disintegration of the moral fabric of society. Ultimate collapse is the expected outcome. This is why the Supreme Court remains the scapegoat of many communitarians as a central cause for many of the ills of society.

Of course, the Catholic community has its own unique commitment to communitarian ideals. It regards the teaching authority of the church, centered in papal encyclicals, as essential for understanding what is good for society. In turn, these teachings are applied by the bishops according to national circumstances. And when non-Catholics embrace this communitarian approach, Catholic ideals of social good obtain greater acceptance in the broader social and political realities. Undoubtedly the Catholic Church has obtained considerable wisdom through its centuries of experience in dealing with society, and its policy positions often make a very positive contribution.

Although there remain important differences between Protestant and Catholic conservatives in the U.S., the socially conservative movement in the U.S. popularly known as "the Religious Right" is essentially a proxy war for the reinstatement of the historic Catholic communitarian ideal once described as "Christendom." Only now it will be not a Roman Catholic Christendom, but a "Catholic" Christendom or a "pan-Christian" social order supported by all forms of Christianity and religions.
Communitarians approach religious liberty first and foremost from what is best for the community, because what is at stake is the role of their institutional influence and the preservation or reintegration of a defined "Christian" morality for a sound Christian social order. They want religious freedom for the individual subsumed under the freedom of religious institutions influencing and guiding society from a generally Christian perspective. It is similar to the federal government thinking that in order to prevent collapse in our economy, it is necessary to "bail out" and uphold the financial institutions that are integral to the economy. In the past, a similar rationale justified the "divine right" of kings to preserve society and, in early colonial America, supported religious establishments as essential for social and political order. James Madison galvanized opposition to such religious establishments in Virginia by publishing his famous Memorial and Remonstrance.

Seventh-day Adventists, other Protestants, many Jews, and secularists, and even some among the ranks of Roman Catholics, view religious freedom as a matter of individual right that precedes and is independent of the formation and existence of any religious institution and any political or civil society. It is a right that cannot undermine the need for appropriate civil and social order, but neither can any civil and social order undermine the individual rights of the people who formed the social order. The goal is to find the balance between individual and social rights so that both are upheld. Communitarians will tend to choose communal rights over the individual's religious rights when the two conflict, while individualists will tend to favor individual rights as superior to the imposition of communitarian views toward life and society by law.

If the individualists have their heads on straight, and many today do not, they will seek to preserve the religious rights of religious institutions without endorsing communitarian viewpoints within the content of laws made for our society.

Mat McMearty is a minister of religion who has spent some years studying and working on church-state issues. He lives in California.

Article Author: Matthew F. McMearty