George Washington penned a letter to the Touro Synagogue of Newport, Rhode Island in 1790, underscoring that “everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” Washington envisioned an America where religious pluralism was not just present but actively protected. This briefing examined the role of faith in the public square as a good in and of itself and as a public good.
Eric Treene, Special Counsel for Religions Discrimination in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, noted a duality in the spirit of the American Constitution’s Establishment Clause and the 1777 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom: neither should someone be forced to support a certain faith nor should he be made to suffer on account of his faith. Treene reemphasized that natural law solidifies our inalienable right to pursue religion and that the founding fathers believed that pluralism must not exclude certain religions. Treene said the Department of Justice strives to defend sincere and “deeply held” religious beliefs while permitting faith to flourish as much as possible without government intervention.
Beyond the external ability to worship, Father Deacon Andrew Bennett, Canada’s first Ambassador for Religious Freedom and Director of the Cardus Religious Freedom Institute, underscored faith’s meaningful ability to address metaphysical and existential questions which have been answered by a myriad of faith traditions. Pluralism means that differing ethical and moral views are to be protected insofar as they are non-violent. Fundamentally, pluralism demands freedom of religion, and Father Deacon Bennett argued that a pluralistic society best promotes human flourishing.
Dr. Sophie van Bijsterveld, Senator in the Dutch Parliament and Professor of Religion, Law and Society at Radboud University, noted that respect and tolerance, which are often invoked in the context of pluralism, are not clearly defined. To achieve these coexistent ends, she borrowed terms from the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams to argue that government authorities may employ “programmatic secularism,” which deters religious activity, or “procedural secularism,” which welcomes religious activity. A contextual understanding of the word “secular” matters especially to current debates over the intersection between values and controversial political subjects like immigration, integration, foreign influencing, and radicalization, etc. Democratic governments struggle to define secularism, and they are further beset by broader definitions from international bodies like the European Court of Human Rights which seeks to protect religious liberties individually yet universally.
Equal treatment among varying cases has been a challenge, as Dr. van Bijsterveld noted that “equal treatment applies in equal circumstances [but] equal treatment…is not necessarily identical treatment.” While the legal uncertainty resulting from diverse religious practice does pose a challenge to legal institutions, overreliance on secularism in the name of fairness could also threaten equal treatment of religious activities.
Ideally, secularism is a neutral ideology, but in Canada, Father Deacon Bennett expressed concern over a “prescribed diversity” and understanding of secularism which might fetter religious freedom. Under “prescribed diversity,” official support for any one ideology risks belittling or demonizing other forms of religious expression under what Father Deacon Bennett termed “illiberal totalitarianism in the public square.”
A balance must be maintained so that faith is not reduced to an entirely private affair, compelling faith to vacate the public square. Treene commented on this difficult tension through the example of French laïcité, government-enforced secularism in the public square. The French government has not been a neutral referee in the fight between secularism and religious expression, and controversial decisions like the French headscarf ban have endeavored to solidify a secular foundation in the public square, arguably at the expense of religious expression.
The degrees to which religion should counteract secularism or vice versa will continue to be debated, but the panelists all concurred that it is the role of society to respect inherent human dignity and to respect others’ rights to freedom of conscience, expression and association. As Dr. van Bijsterveld noted, this also includes mutual understanding between public authorities and religious communities. The implication of such cooperation is especially significant in a politically polarized society because greater amounts of religious freedom correlates with decreased levels of social conflict, according to recent scholarship at the Religious Freedom Research Project. Following George Washington’s encouragement of diverse religious practice in 1790’s America, we too should respect faith’s essential place in the public square in 2018, panelists argued.