What Do Religion’s Social Contributions Have to Do with Religious Freedom?

By: Thomas C. Berg

September 27, 2016

Measuring Faith: Quantifying and Examining Religion's Contributions to American Society

A new study by the Religious Freedom and Business Foundation quantifies the socio-economic value that religious organizations contribute to America: nearly $1.2 trillion yearly in economic activity and in services to others. The analysis reinforces evidence previously amassed by scholars like Ram Cnaan, John DiIulio, Steven Monsma, and Robert Putnam and David Campbell.

Such evidence is relevant to the questions about religious freedom that currently vex American society—in particular, the rights of religious organizations, both churches and nonprofits, to adhere to their religious tenets and identity in hiring employees and serving clients. Countering the one-sided view that freedom of religion is simply a cover for irrationality and bigotry will open minds to considering religious freedom arguments rather than dismissing them out of hand.

More specifically, this argument that religion benefits society reflects an important strain in America’s religious freedom tradition. One reason we protect voluntary religious organizations is that they are important means by which individuals develop and exercise “civic virtue.” George Washington reflected the view of many founders when, in his farewell address, he emphasized the need for “national morality” and also counseled “caution” before “indulg[ing] the supposition” that such morality could be sustained “in exclusion of religious principle.”

Today, religious organizations contribute greatly to “national morality” by feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, helping prisoners reenter society, and counseling those with addictions. If these organizations face legal pressure to violate the tenets and identity that inspire them, they may have to curtail their work or exit altogether. If this happens, we should be reluctant, in Washington’s words, to “indulge the supposition” that government or other secular agencies will fill the void.

But this connection between religious freedom and religion’s social contributions is complex. It begs several questions that must be answered in order to say that religion’s social good is a ground for protecting religious freedom.

1. Religious organizations do things that society sees as good, but how does that justify protecting them when they do things, like LGBT discrimination, that society determines are bad?

To answer this question, we can return to George Washington, this time to a 1789 letter he wrote to a Quaker assembly that had congratulated him on his inauguration. Washington had a rocky relationship with Quakers, whose refusal to serve in the Revolutionary Army had been widely viewed as treasonous. Nevertheless, in this letter Washington supported “extensively accommodat[ing]” religious conscience even when it conflicted with a social norm (in this case, contributing to the common defense). He did so because Quakers were generally “exemplary and useful citizens,” largely because of the same belief system that led them to refuse military service. In other words, a specific act may deserve protection because even though it contravenes social norms, it stems from an overall pattern of living that promotes social virtues.

This perspective combines the goods of pluralism and civic virtue. Protection of dissenting conscience can promote the common good by keeping the dissenter not merely free, but free to continue serving others. Organizations advance societal goals from a variety of perspectives and in a variety of ways: many of them make “uncommon contributions to the common good,” as Stanley Carlson-Thies has put it. Forcing an organization to change or minimize a feature of its distinctive identity risks undercutting the organization's distinctive contributions inspired by that identity.

2. The data may show the value of religious organizations in general, but how do we know that organizations that object to legal norms contribute value or are worth protecting?

A few—but not all—of the studies about religious organizations’ contributions distinguish among different denominations. John DiIulio, for example, writes that Catholics, white evangelicals, and African-American evangelicals are “the three religious communities that figure most prominently in serving members and nonmembers alike.” The effectiveness of these groups may be no accident. They are what I have called, in another article, “partly acculturated”: they reach out to the broader culture to provide services and employment to nonmembers, but simultaneously they maintain certain faith-based standards of conduct that depart from general social norms, particularly in the area of sexuality.

Partly acculturated groups may have built-in advantages in providing social services. Social scientists studying religion have documented and analyzed how “strict” churches—those that make countercultural demands on members—tend to inspire greater commitment than lenient groups do. Such demands screen out “free riders” while building trust among the members. This dynamic may help explain why evangelical and Catholic groups often retain an especially strong religious identity that invigorates them and attracts donors, clients, and other constituencies. Simultaneously, in these partly acculturated organizations, members’ energy is not confined to helping each other; it extends to helping others in the broader society.

In future research on religious organizations’ social value, it would be helpful to examine, even if roughly, whether organizations that display countercultural elements—strict policies, even potential conflicts with law—are especially vigorous providers of services.

3. If religious organizations are so important and pervasive, doesn’t society have to regulate them heavily to limit their harms to others?

The size of the faith-based service sector could be a double-edged sword for religious freedom. Religious organizations’ very prominence, one could argue, means they cannot be accommodated, because they affect too many other people when they contravene general laws. Although that is sometimes true, sensible accommodation is often possible because religious providers are important but ample alternatives also exist. What matters is not only the size of the religious sector but also—as emphasized above—its distinctive contributions. We must not forget that some beneficiaries and employees want a religious setting: Religious providers reach that segment of the population, while other providers reach different segments. Families can choose to send their children to traditional Catholic schools, and evangelical students with traditional views can attend evangelical colleges, while public and liberal-oriented private institutions provide many options that are preferable for, say, LGBT students.

In this light, it was unwarranted for California legislators recently to propose that religious colleges must drop their traditionalist standards of sexual conduct for students and faculty or else face the disqualification of their students from state-funded grants (“Cal Grants”). The serious harm the bill would have done to religious colleges was unnecessary, because LGBT students had many other higher education institutions they could attend.

When a religious organization gives notice of its policies and non-religious alternatives exist, then legal coercion against the organization—potentially forcing it to exit the field—threatens to deprive many people of its distinctive contribution while doing little to make services available to others.
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