What is religious freedom supposed to free? That is, what is the operant understanding of “religion” behind the claims of religious freedom such that religion requires its own forms, practices, and concepts of freedom under the law? Is there something about religion that gives freedom of religion either a privileged or a peculiarly worrisome character different in kind from artistic, political, or sexual freedom? And to this list, why not add occupational, associational, or, say, economic freedoms? As the introductory remarks to this set of posts suggest, one thing that institutions of religious freedom commonly presuppose is a deep connection between religion (or at least some kinds of religion) and violence, such that religion requires specific kinds of juridical intervention or state neutrality. This is an idea, of course, commonly said to lie at the roots of the distinctive forms of European church-state relations whose early emergence is conventionally identified with the Peace of Westphalia. And it is certainly an assumption about which doubts may be—and have been—raised. To posit an essential link between religion and violence is to assume that religion is defined by special emotions and deep, even primordial, commitments that separate it from the forms of instrumental rationality supposed to underlie other forms of violence such as electoral strife, class conflict, or even criminality. I will return to this below.

Beyond this supposed inclination of religion toward violence, initial postings to this discussion by Winnifred Fallers Sullivan and Elizabeth Shakman Hurd bring out two different dimensions of the presuppositions informing current legal and political debates about religious freedom. Hurd, drawing on Talal Asad and others, stresses the central place given to the concept of belief in the notion of religion. Sullivan, attending to ways in which the concept of religious freedom is being reformulated in the contemporary United States, points to the anxieties about the moral nihilism that will supposedly result from any triumph of irreligion, under the guise of separation of church and state.

The first of these dimensions, a focus on belief, tends to portray religions in the plural (I believe in the Trinity, you believe in karma). The focus on morality, on the other hand, tends to place the relevant divide at a higher level of abstraction, between the presence and absence of religion altogether. Or at least this is how the situation is presently understood by many of the American religious groups whose opposition to liberal understandings of the separation of church and state Sullivan discusses in her post. And one might suggest these different emphases involve different degrees of implied consequentiality. Without wishing to overstate the case, it may be that freedom of belief is most easily accepted if one takes it to refer primarily to theological claims of no particular immediate and practical consequence—-beyond the assurance that one has a religion of some sort. Perhaps something like this pluralist view underlies the Senator John Breaux’s remark a few years ago, when asked whether being Jewish would affect the political fate of Joseph Lieberman: “I don’t think American voters care where a man goes to church on Sunday.”  If, on the other hand, religion is above all a matter of moralities, it is easy to imagine dire social and political results from the mishandling of the relevant freedoms. In either case, what makes religious freedom a special case, requiring special protections, institutions, and interventions, is predicated on what one takes religion ultimately to be.

Bridging the belief-focused and morality-focused views of religion is the idea of conscience, and the freedoms it demands. The tradition, to which Hurd refers, of defining religion in terms of belief, tends to privilege individual interiority and its sincere expression. Thus religion is easily, if not necessarily, understood to be a matter of choices made among alternatives. Indeed, as Charles Taylor has argued, even the distinction between religion and irreligion, in his view of the secular condition, has become merely a matter of choice among more or less equally weighted options. This is one reason why the focus on belief seems to lead to a view of the plurality of religions as so many members of a set, differing in their content but alike in their kind (all “go to church on Sunday”). And it is precisely because one’s religious beliefs are, at least in principle, a matter of choice that they manifest an ethics of freedom, and, in the liberal tradition at least, the freedom of an individual’s conscience. That is, they are ethical precisely because they are deep manifestations of freedom in principle; as the Lockean argument goes, one may only imprison a person’s body, but not their conscience. Thus, one might argue religious freedom, framed as a matter of freedom of conscience and centered on belief, becomes inseparable from a long history of thought about freedom of the will tout court. What makes religious freedom special, in this view, might be the way in which it articulates a fundamental basis for there even being any human freedom at all.

As I have argued elsewhere, the sincere belief model of religion is at the heart of a moral narrative of modernity, such that to maintain a religious practice that is not centered on belief—-to pay too much heed to (mere) rituals or icons or dietary laws, for instance—is to remain backward. The moral narrative of modernity is a story about human emancipation and self-mastery. According to this moral narrative, modernity is a story of human liberation from a host of false beliefs and fetishisms that undermined freedom in the past. It is a narrative in which freedom as such is pitted against certain forms of religion, such that their elimination (and, in some versions, replacement with the religion of sincere beliefs; in others, with no religion at all) is a condition for the fuller realization of human agency. Those who persist in their fetishisms are not merely behind the times; by denying the agency that is properly theirs, they can even undermine the gains made by others over the course of that long struggle.

But as many critics have observed, the focus on belief is not only narrow; it also tends to favor a propositional understanding of religious belief. This understanding contributes to, or at least is consistent with, the idea that a rational capacity for deliberation is a fundamental precondition for moral actions. The demand that one be responsible for one’s thoughts can translate into a demand that those thoughts be available for rendering in explicit form. Thus a legal insistence on responsibility may entail a degree of pragmatic pressure on on-the-ground religious practices, rendering juridically unrecognizable those that fail to assert themselves with creedal authority. Moreover, when juxtaposed to the morality-oriented view of religion, this demand may give greater impetus to the long-standing effort to organize morality under a knowable, objectified organizing principle that seems to be a distinctive project of a scripture-based monolithic religion. Given the demands for coherence imposed by a discursively explicit system of belief, religious morality may take the law as its model, and it would seem only natural as well to appeal to the law for support.

The high value often placed on the propositional stance toward one’s thoughts has become a general expectation within the frame of secularism. In this view, what freedom of religion frees is, in its most exemplary form, a set of ideas discursively available to the consciousness of individuals. Freedom of religion might be about practices and ethical commitments, but its basis would seem to lie in freedom of thought. In some important versions, the sincere belief model of religion also involves a particular semiotic ideology according to which the material forms of religion are merely conventional and arbitrary expressions of immaterial ideas. In the moral narrative of modernity, to appropriate proper human agency requires self-awareness and reason. This must be facilitated by that semiotic ideology such that people come to recognize the true significance of words and objects. From the perspective of this semiotic ideology, any excessively strong responses to the desecration of sacred objects and texts, or to the legal regulation of such things as headscarves and crucifixes, can seem to be irrational and archaic restrictions on the freedom that people should claim for themselves. In this view, since the religious sign is merely a conventional expression of something else, such as one’s thoughts or social identity, then its regulation under the law should weigh lightly on the believer. After all, what is really supposed to matter—those thoughts or identities themselves—would remain untouched.

Consider in this regard the idea of religion as opposed to irreligion, as a basis for morality, noted by Sullivan. Religion understood primarily in terms of morality differs from that understood as first and foremost a matter of belief in at least two respects. First, it does not depend upon any particular discursive formation. We can see an example in Charles Hirschkind’s account of a piety movement in Egypt, in which ethical self-cultivation aims less at the learning of or adherence to doctrines or verbally explicit sets of rules, than at the inculcation of sensibilities, somatic responsiveness, and emotional dispositions. Second, the focus on morality may often (if not always and everywhere, as dissidents of conscience make clear) require us to understand the faithful in the context of larger communities. This is perhaps one reason why religious regulations in many places concentrate on domestic law. As Saba Mahmood has observed, Egyptian law treated marriage and the household as special concerns of religion, appropriately handled within particular religious communities, in sharp contrast to other spheres of the law, which were the prerogative of state institutions. In broad terms this is consistent with a more general history of Euro-American modernity in which the domestic sphere comes to be demarcated as that domain of social life most appropriately governed by affect and the moral sentiments, in contrast to the economic rationality that should prevail in the marketplace or the strategic calculations of politics. The restriction of religious law to the domestic sphere, and association of both with the moral regulation of communal life (focusing on the behavior of women), may reinforce the identification of religion with the irrational world of emotions.

The confinement of religious law, that is law directed by religion, to the domestic sphere has, of course, been challenged by a variety of religious political movements. Much of the current discussion of these movements centers on the challenges they pose to familiar narratives about the inevitable secularization of public life. But in many places the secularization thesis has never predominated. Consider the Pacific, where, as the editors of one recent volume on Christianity and politics in the region note, for many public figures “nation-states are the means and not the ends of Christian action.”Although this claim inverts conventional social scientific understandings of means and ends, it still preserves some version of instrumental rationality operating in a knowable world. It offers a theological anthropology to account for human interests and to delimit the capacities for and constraints on legitimate political action that other legal and political traditions may leave only tacitly presupposed. This anthropology offers models of human agency directed by moral sensibilities, divinely sanctioned. Those who see politics as requiring a certain kind of morality, as is common not only in much of the Christian Pacific but also elsewhere—not least of all, the United States—often take morality to depend on religious faith. This widespread view typically derives from a nested set of assumptions: that faith offers an ultimate foundation for morality, that appeal to theology is the necessary and sufficient justification and authorization for ethical actions, that scriptural or pastoral teachings offer moral guidance, and that religious institutions and practices are the chief practical means by which moral guidance is inculcated and those ethical demands made inhabitable, all reinforced through the discipline of life within a religious community.

One objection to this view, of course, is that it seems to render those who claim no religion, or whose religion is unrecognizable to others, as incapable of possessing a reliable moral compass. But in practice, political theologies also encounter other difficulties of their own. Like religious politics elsewhere, the goal in the Christian Pacific is often totalization, a quest for a holistic world in which faith, morality, and political order work in harmony. Yet the very terms through which that goal is sought derive from the characteristically modern and secular divisions among domains that set religion as a sphere apart from others, and subject to distinctive forms of legal permission and constraint (and, in some traditions, immune to corruption by virtue of that very separation). But the fact of being paradoxical hardly disqualifies a political theology from social success, and indeed, may serve as a goad to still more strenuous efforts.

Can religious freedom be understood not just as the subtraction of religion from the public sphere (as Charles Taylor puts it) in order to emancipate some prior, authentic, self-fulfilling human essence? Can religious freedom be understood as itself helping constitute an ethical lifeworld without posing it either as liberation from the moralities produced in religions or as protecting religions from secular threats to the moralities considered peculiar to them? And can it also be understood in such a way as to recognize those people whose ethical sensibilities are not grounded in religion? To return to my opening question, the answer depends in part on what understanding of “religion” is presupposed by the laws that regulate and protect it.

A great deal turns on what is supposed to make religion distinct, in contrast to other institutions, practices, and domains of social existence. The struggles over religious freedom are many things, to be sure. But there is a possible point of convergence between the worries of those who are compelled by religious sensibilities and their opponents. For they may agree on the stakes, namely, the problem of understanding what motivates politics, what determines the outcomes of political actions, and what should constrain them. Although it may be misleading to base the legal protection or control of religion on the notion that religion taps into deep and potentially dangerous emotional sources, it may be right to recognize religion as one (if only one) organizing category for efforts to grapple with the limits of instrumental rationality as a full account of what people are up to.