religious freedom

religious freedom

Freedom of Community: Next Frontier in Societies that Work

community, religious freedom No comments

In happy families members belong to each other and know and enjoy the belonging. But family life gets even better when the family belongs in a community of its own choosing, a community it likes and one where it feels it belongs. In the United States, and across the globe, the task facing governments increasingly is to find solutions that permit co-existence of communities of different religious and moral norms.  Most people derive a critical component of their personal identity from their membership in their community of choice (Israeli Jew, Palestinian Christian, Hispanic Catholic in the United States, gay activist in Ireland, an Evangelical in Texas, an Amish farmer in Pennsylvania, a Muslim mother in Dearborn Michigan, a Hassidic Jewish father in New York, and so on ad infinitum).

The struggle for individual freedoms is often really a struggle for freedom of community life.  The United States, which is the most successful experiment in political freedom in the history of mankind, now must solve for itself (and demonstrate to the world at large) how to solve the problem of freedom of very different communities within modern complex market-integrated societies.

The U.S. has a rather checkered history in the struggle for freedom of community.  It never got it perfect, but it keeps on trying to adjudicate between the ideals of freedom and the totalitarian temptation, a temptation given into many times in its history. Its first indulgence was in the constitutional protection of slavery, which denied freedom of marriage, family, community and religious practice to African-Americans brought to this country by force.  Native American communities suffered even worse treatment at times.  Coming to America does not make political saints out of immigrants, even Founding Father immigrants.

Another great totalitarian temptation, the impetus to deny freedom of religious community, did not triumph as much, but has remained a permanent presence. Despite the monumental achievement of the First Amendment, Catholics and Jews suffered a lot. In the first part of the 1800’s the Know Nothings as well as the dominant Protestant ethos of the time imposed a different religious education on Catholic families.  This lasted through the mid 1900’s when prayer was banished from public schools (not the preferred ending). This corruption in education of the American ideal of religious freedom metastasized early into the Blaine Amendments as new states were added to the Union, amendments that, to this day, distort family and community freedoms in many state constitutions. American Catholics, however, were prepared to pay the price of their freedom of community: they built their own school systems so that families could raise their children in the norms and ethos of their own faith communities. That struggle and that cost continues to this day.

Despite giving into the totalitarian temptation repeatedly through its history, the cornerstone American belief in freedom has triumphed repeatedly in other areas, even in matters of community.  An iconic example is the successful constitutional battle of the Amish to live their faith-community lives as they see fit.  This example may well be the template for the future of America.

The Amish community has clear behavioral boundaries that everyone can easily recognize. Though it makes high demands on its members the rewards are evident in its thriving viability. It does respect freedom, including freedom of family, religion and community of its own members. Young Amish adults have to choose to opt in or out of the community after a time of reflection and even experimentation outside. It does not impose its beliefs on neighbors. By and large an American attitude of “live and let live” operates on both sides of these community boundaries. Amish are very different but they are good citizens, happy to respect the existence of very different moral/religious communities around them because their own community borders and boundaries are respected.

Attaining this type of respect of the boundaries of moral communities is the great global problem of our day. People differ on what they believe is right or is wrong, particularly in matters that interface with family, sex and religious beliefs. With increased migrations from diverse religious and ethnic cultures this problem is intensifying not only in the US, but also across the globe.  In the United States it also takes on a rather unique configuration: the boundaries between traditional religious-value communities and newer, more morally relativist communities are in dispute, with sexual-morality-signals being the strongest markers of boundaries between these different communities.

These sexual-signal-markers indicate revered cultural, yet personally intimate practices on marriage, birth, abortion, contraception, divorce, adoption and education of children.  All people become quite agitated if their community way of life is threatened at its boundaries.  It is one of the deepest sources of intense energy (of love or anger, even rage) in human nature.  It is this dimension of freedom — freedom of community — that our generation of Americans is now called to solve if our nation’s historical experiment in freedom is to continue to unfold positively.  Furthermore, the whole world needs to see how we solve this problem.

Without freedom of community one does not have individual freedom. We all need our freedom to marry, to have family, and to live in communities of our choice in our legitimate ways of conducting family, church, school, marketplace and government at the micro levels of local community.  The Founding Fathers fought for this.  Our generation has to fight for it again and insist on a government that protects (rather than violates) our liberty to do good for our families in the legitimate ways of our own communities.

The United States started as a federation of states, to continue it must become also a federation of cultural communities that undergirds the founding structure of the Union.

Pat Fagan

(To be continued)