APRIL 22, 2002
The Myth of the Myth of Freedom
-- Martin E. Marty
Two running and highly visible examples of religious groups under governmental investigation or court summons are Islamic charities, which may or may not be funneling funds to terrorist groups, and Catholic dioceses, which may or may not be guilty of crime in respect to child abuse by priests.
The April 18 edition of the Wall Street Journal referred to a Muslim "ethnic bloc." There is no such thing. The American and world Islamic communities comprise many ethnicities. What unites them and often inspires their charitable giving is their religion. We do not have to make the case that dioceses, bishops, priests, and confessionals are religious. Yet, obviously, in both examples the groups are being examined, haled to court, subjected to governmental monitoring, and, if need be, legal action. These religious "blocs" and institutions and their leaders have no choice but to respond to investigation or summons -- unless they want to take the path of resisters and dissidents, refuse to cooperate in the name of faith, and risk imprisonment or fines.
In cases like these it is clear that we Americans do not have absolute religious freedom. In fact, Kenneth R. Craycraft, Jr., in The American Myth of Religious Freedom (Spence Publishing Company, 1999), a largely overlooked and, I think, largely but not wholly wrong book, says we do not have even relative religious freedom. We have only a myth, and a myth he defines (against the conventional religious usage) as something that is not true. He excoriates thinkers, fellow-conservatives or not, who say that part of the bargain in a republic is that religions in the end have to be civilly subordinate to government. That means, he says, that they are not free to use "real" religion to advocate for laws or to fight against them.
The reason this situation exists, he says, goes back to the devil's compact set forth by the Madisons and Jeffersons, who mixed secular, Enlightenment, and religious themes to justify a polity that gives freedom to "church" but in the end protects only "state." That is where the "partly right" part of his argument shows up. Every polity is no doubt grounded in sets of metaphysical assumptions ("We hold these truths. . . .") and they tend to include disguised and sometimes open religious justifications.
What Craycraft and kin do not do, despite valiant efforts to redraft religious freedom on Catholic Vatican II theological grounds, is help us envision how the alternative that he advocates would leave us with anything but sectarian chaos and, in the end, anarchy. He does not seem to worry about that outcome. Religion of the sort he cherishes would be "free," whatever else happened to others. And these "others" would be at each other's throats.