Religious Institutions, Pluralism, and the Infrastructure of Religious Freedom

Crosspost from Balkinization

What The Constitution in 2020 calls a “progressive vision of constitutional law in the years ahead” should, I believe, re-discover, incorporate, and emphasize what might seem a not-very-progressive – because very old – idea.  Here it is:  Constitutionalism generally, and religious freedom more specifically, are well served by the protection and flourishing of an array of self-governing non-state authorities.  The Jacobins were wrong.  In a nutshell, religious liberty is both nurtured in and protected by – it needs, I think – religious communities, associations, and institutions.

The contributions to the volume dealing with politics, democracy, and expression – in particular, the essays written by Robert Post and Yochai Benkler – are sensitive to the structures through which we participate in politics and engage in protected, democracy-enhancing speech.  They are attentive, in other words, to the infrastructure that is required for the exercise and maintenance of cherished freedoms. 

Well, like the freedom of speech, religious freedom has and requires an infrastructure.  Like free expression, it is not exercised only by individuals; like free expression, its exercise requires more than an individual with something to say; like free expression, it involves more than protecting a solitary conscience.  The freedom of religion is not only lived and experienced through institutions, it is also protected and nourished by them.  The values and goods that the First Amendment’s Religion Clauses are today understood to embody and protect—and, we can usefully refer to this cluster of goods and values as “religious freedom”—are well served by a civil-society landscape that is thick with religious institutions and associations, and by legal rules that acknowledge and capture their importance.  These institutions contribute to—they do not only benefit from, and they are not only protected by—the reality of religious freedom under law.

The theories and doctrines we use to understand, apply and enforce the First Amendment’s religious-freedom provisions should reflect and respect this fact.  They should not be constructed solely to deal with the problems that were the focus of the thoughtful essays on religious liberty contributed by Noah Feldman and Bill Marshall, namely, the task of identifying the bounds of permissible religion-regarding spending or expression by government.  Religious liberty, fully understood, involves not only the immunities of believers but also what was once called “the freedom of the church.”  And, as Feldman and Marshall explain, the separation of church and state involves legal arrangements and constitutional constraints whose point is not so much to artificially exclude religious faith from our civil and political lives as to respect religious institutions’ independence and autonomy.

In my view, if we want to understand well the content and implications of our constitutional commitment to religious liberty, we need to ask, as Chip Lupu and Bob Tuttle once put it, whether “religious entities occupy a distinctive place in our constitutional order.”  I believe they do, and should.  Today, though, American judicial decisions and public conversations about religious freedom tend to focus on matters of individuals’ rights, beliefs, consciences, and practices.  The distinctive place, role, and freedoms of groups, associations, and institutions are often overlooked.  This pattern is consistent with the widespread assumption that, because the individual religious conscience is and must be free, religion itself is entirely private.  However, an understanding of religious faith, and religious freedom, that stops with the liberty of conscience, and neglects institutions and communities, will be incomplete.  And, so will the legal arrangements that such an understanding produces.

Indeed, it could be that the Supreme Court’s Religion Clauses doctrine is famously confused and confusing, not because religion is inherently “divisive,” not because scholars disagree about the content and relevance of the First Amendment’s original meaning, and not because that doctrine is the product of changing groups of judges, appointed by Presidents of different parties, with a range of values and commitments.  Instead, it could be that our constitutional doctrine and our thinking about religious freedom under law do not reflect, capture and translate very well the importance of particular institutions in the constitutional order and to the values that the First Amendment should serve.

Now, how does the infrastructure of religious freedom work?  How, exactly, do churches (and the like) shore up (and not just find shelter within) the freedom of religion?  It is clearly not by supplanting the freedom of the individual religious conscience as the ultimate beneficiary of religious freedom under law.  Quite the contrary.  As I have spelled out in more detail elsewhere, the existence and independence of religious institutions long served, and is still needed today, as – in John Courtney Murray’s words – the “social armature to the sacred order,” within which the individual human person could be “secure in all the freedoms that his sacredness demands.”

Of course, the days are long gone – and 2020 will not bring them back – when we could speak of the Church as the chief rival to, check upon and sometimes close partner with the State.  Today, in our religious-freedom doctrines and conversations, it is likely that the independence and autonomy of churches, and of religious institutions and associations generally are seen as deriving from the free-exercise or conscience rights of individual persons rather than as providing the basis for the exercise of those rights.  (Indeed, many would say, and perhaps celebrate the fact, that institutions are becoming less important to our religious, or “spiritual,” lives.)  It remains the case, though, that the existence and independence of religious institutions are needed to – quoting Murray again -- “check the encroachments of secular power and preserve [the] immunities” of our “basic human things.”  Murray was right to worry that the individual conscience, standing alone, is not up to the task of creating and sustaining the conditions necessary to ensure religious freedom; it is not, as he put it, “equal to the burden” of serving as the “sole authentic mediator of moral imperatives to the political order” and the “keystone of the modern experiment in freedom.”  An institutional approach to the Religion Clauses – an approach that is consistent with the reality of increasing pluralism and should therefore be attractive to progressives --  would recognize this worry, and have responding to it as its chief aim.


Richard W. Garnett is Associate Dean and Professor of Law at the University of Nortre Dame Law School. He will be appearing on Saturday's "Individual Rights Panel" with Elizabeth Emens (Columbia Law School, "Disability's Force"), Paul Horwitz (The University of Alabama School of Law, "The First Amendment in 2020: An Institutional Perspective"), and Alice Ristroph (Seton Hall University School of Law, "Discrimination, Violence, and the Constitution").

Obama's Inauguration: A Progressive Approach to Religion in the Public Sphere?


"We know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus – and nonbelievers."
 – Barack Obama’s Inaugural Address, January 2009

Since George Washington invoked “the Almighty Being” in his first inaugural address, prayer has opened America's Presidential inaugural ceremonies.  Recent Presidents -- Republicans and Democrats alike -- have chosen religious figures who have offered broad ecumenical prayers to appeal to the widest range of people.

But, in a departure from the norm, Barack Obama chose voices from extreme ends of the political spectrum and wove them together into a pluralistic patchwork of public religious expression: the first openly gay Episcopalian bishop commenced the festivities, an evangelical preacher known for his opposition to gay marriage offered the invocation, and a veteran civil rights leader delivered the benediction.  At the National Prayer Service the next day, the first female president of the Disciples of Christ gave the sermon, and Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic leaders offered prayers from their faith traditions. (To see video coverage of the festitivites, click here.)

Never before had an inaugural ceremony embraced such radically inclusive religious representation.  Obama was the first to give a prominent place to Muslims and Hindus, both in the ceremony and his inauguration speech.  (The Bush and Clinton inaugurations were racially diverse but remained almost exclusively Judeo-Christian, prominently featuring Billy Graham.)  Can Obama’s inauguration hold up a picture of a new progressive approach to religion in the public sphere? 

In "Progressives, the Religion Clauses, and the Limits of Secularism" (Chapter 21 in The Constitution in 2020), William Marshall explains that a progressive approach to religion must recognize the limits and values of secularism, the position that government must not use its power to promote or endorse religion.  Marshall argues that secularism has instrumental values: government support of religion demeans the integrity of that religion, harms and alienates other religions, and misuses government resources. 

However, secularism has its limits too, Marshall argues: the secular position that morality can be derived from nonreligious sources is itself a theological proposition that creates its own establishment.  When secularism privileges nonreligious over religious entities, it discriminates against religion and violates equality.  Moreover, secularism runs up against a public culture already replete with religious symbols, names, and references.  It is not only impossible but also hostile and divisive to attempt to strip all religion from the public sphere.  Marshall concludes that both extremes of pro-religion conservatism and anti-religion secularism are harmful.

In his inauguration, Obama appeared to steer between the extremes Marshall sketches out: he heeded the values of secularism and avoided his predecessor’s overreliance on a single brand of conservative Christianity, but he also recognized the limits of secularism and did not restrict or water down religion in his inauguration.  Rather, Obama populated the festivities with multiple religious voices that reflected the nation’s rising religious diversity.  I believe that the use of religion in Obama’s inauguration went beyond merely confirming the importance of the historical role of religion in American history: it played an active role in the evolution of public religious displays from general and minimalist to plural and particular. 

Marshall warns against such an active engagement with religion.  Marshall wants progressives to permit religious vestiges in culture but prohibit the government from new forms of religious reference or displays.  When the government participates in the production of public religious culture, Marshall argues, sectarian interests can capture the state, religious groups will want to seek additional government favor, and the government can become entangled in battles over religious symbols, raising antiestablishment concerns. 

Obama risked all of these dangers in his inauguration – and for the most part avoided them.  Can he continue to engage religion successfully as President – not just in speech but in action too?

Obama’s recent speech addressing embattled religious communities in the Middle East suggests he can. There, Obama recognized both sides as victims and oppressors, and appealed to both sides’ religious commitments in calling them to break cycles of violence. 


His speech has been criticized as just that – speech. And yet speech is a necessary first step toward any action.  That first step is always critical and often under-valued: it is the space of the imagination where values are nurtured, horizons are drawn, and capabilities are determined.  Obama works this space well.  His speeches throughout the campaign and in the inauguration reclaimed a national narrative of hope and possibility; now his speech aims to redeem ancient religious narratives soaked in blood.  Radically inclusive speech has the power to bring people to the table and to shape their sense of possibility upon arriving there (journalists have already begun to suggest that there’s an “Obama effect” rippling throughout other parts of the globe). Once at the table, the real work begins – negotiating concrete differences, pounding out policy proposals, and taking action that causes real change.

Can Obama bring enough people to the table to deliver results?  Can he engage religion and avoid the danger Marshall outlines -- government entanglement with religion at home and abroad?  The jury is still out, but the signs are promising.

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