Recently on Big Questions Online (BQO), Thomas Farr puts forth and analyzes the question, “Is religious freedom necessary for other freedoms to flourish?” Farr first discusses why this question is important and then explains why he believes other freedoms are indeed tied to religious freedom. Farr explains:
But can religious freedom be seen as necessary for the flourishing of the other freedoms within pluralist societies comprised of many religious and non-religious citizens and views? There are good reasons to believe that the answer is yes. Two historical examples will help illuminate those reasons.
First, America’s founding generation identified religious freedom as “the first freedom” because they saw it, in effect, as a precondition for the other freedoms. James Madison wrote that each of us has rights that flow from the duty we owe God. “This duty is precedent, both in order of time and degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe.”
Further, Madison insisted that if men were to fulfill their obligation to God they must have freedom — especially freedom from the coercive powers of the state. “The Duty which we owe our Creator, and the manner of our discharging it, can be governed only by Reason and Conviction, not by Compulsion or Violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the full and free exercise of it according to the dictates of conscience, unpunished and unrestrained by the Magistrate. . . .”
Here, then, in man’s duty to the God who created him, and gave him reason and will, lay man’s natural right to religious freedom. In other words, performing the duty required freedom, or, as Madison put it, the right of “free exercise” of religion. To the founders it was necessary to the operation of the other freedoms. As George Washington expressed the point in his final farewell address: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are the indispensable supports.”
A second example from contemporary history: political scientist Samuel Huntington wrote that the third wave of democratization, which began in the 1970s and extended into the 1990s, was dominated by Catholic nations, and a key element of their transition to democracy was the Church’s embrace — during the Second Vatican Council — of religious liberty for all.