Religious Institutions, Civil Society, and Secularism’s Disguised Burden

This column is a second excerpted and adapted from comments by the author at Georgetown University (Washington, D.C.) as part of the symposium, “Which Model, Whose Liberty? Differences between the U.S. and European Approaches to Religious Freedom.”

Whenever the practices of religious institutions conflict with policies mandated by the secular state – as in the case of the HHS mandate – inevitably someone tries to adjudicate the dispute by asking whether, and to what extent, the religious institutions contribute to civil society, and on what grounds should the secular state limit its powers to accommodate these religious practices.

This way of seeking a resolution assumes that religious communities must somehow justify their existence in terms of benefits they may provide to a self-sufficient civil society. But why should we think this unstated premise is correct?

There is no obvious deliverance of reason that commands us to assign no burdens to the secular state and to presuppose that its omnipresent reach is prima facie justified.  Even though this assumption is what is lurking behind most normative inquiries about the place of religious communities in our public life, I see no reason why we should uncritically accept it. 

After all, we can address the same topic while asking questions that do not make such a controversial assumption. Imagine, for example, raising this question: Would our present arrangement, quality, and character of institutions, and the moral intuitions and anthropological beliefs that motivated their founding, have even arisen in the first place if not for the faithful practice of religious communities?

Consider the setting in which I found myself over three weeks ago, Georgetown University, where I was participating in an academic conference on religion and public life.

Georgetown is a Catholic institution, founded by the Society of Jesus, an order of priests that was launched in response to the Protestant Reformation. My own institution, Baylor University, older than the state of Texas itself, was founded by Baptists, who are rightly proud of their tradition’s commitment to the separation of church and state.  Baylor, like Georgetown, established a hospital, a medical school, and countless other projects underwritten by its theological commitments.

These wonderful accomplishments, however, are hardly unique.  These sorts of institutions, as well as a host of others that advance the common good, have also been created and developed by Presbyterians, Methodists, Jews, Mormons, Episcopalians, Muslims, the Salvation Army, and Seventh-Day Adventists, to name just a few.

In all these cases, the religious communities maintain that the creation of institutions of this kind is a faithful application of the moral commands found in their most sacred writings. These moral commands presuppose an understanding of human nature and the human good that is at root theological.

Consequently, it is not surprising that secular attempts to justify these institutions and their practices often appeal to notions that seem to function as non-religious versions of the theological beliefs they are employed to replace, even if that fact is rarely recognized.

So, for example, the late Harvard philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002) tells us that the first principles of justice are derived from a thought experiment in which a small set of human beings, blessed with both personal innocence and a God’s eye point of view, is able to provide the basis on which human equality and dignity ought to rest. 

Philosopher John Rawls

             It is difficult to believe that Rawls would have thought such an account of justice plausible if he had not been intellectually formed in a civilization that had in its own story a creation narrative in which human beings in the original position, though initially uncorrupted and in submission to the God’s eye point of view, never lose the imago dei, the ground of their intrinsic dignity, even when they stray from Eden.

          It is this understanding of the human being’s condition and her greatness that gives meaning to the institutions, works of mercy, and ways of life produced by the wide variety of religious communities I have already mentioned. 

So rather than asking how religious communities contribute to civil society, as if we could abstract and sequester them and still recognize what remains, I think the more interesting question we should be asking is this: In what ways would a civil society, with a tapestry of ideas and institutions woven from theological threads, risk unraveling if religious communities and their institutions were marginalized by policies and cultural trends intrinsically hostile to their mission?


Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).