The Problem With “Religious Freedom”

Increasingly, we hear about the right to “religious liberty.” Or: “religious freedom.”

There’s actually no such thing as religious liberty. Why? Only individuals can possess (or lack) liberty.

To say that there’s “religious liberty” is to claim that a particular body, organization or philosophical movement has rights over and above the rights of the individual.

But rights cannot exist apart from the individuals who hold them.

If you’re religious and you’re concerned about your liberty, then it’s individual rights you ought to uphold.

Individual rights refer to the liberty of the individual to be free from force or fraud. In other words, nothing should be against the law except for the initiation of force or fraud. Government should exist (and only exist) to protect individual rights.

If your religion tells you that you may stone gay people; or shoot doctors who perform abortions; or outlaw pornography; or run airplanes into skyscrapers — you may not legally get away with any of these things in the name of “religious liberty.”

On the other hand, if you wish to pray to the supernatural being of your choice; believe in whatever parables, myths, stories or practice any rituals (excluding force or fraud) on your own privately funded church property, or in your home, then it’s entirely your business.

If advocates of “religious liberty” such as Sarah Palin came out in favor of individual rights, it would be possible to respect their positions, at least politically, whatever you otherwise think of their beliefs.

But while such supporters of religious liberty don’t necessarily want religious dictatorship, they want religion to have more ability to control human behavior than a society based on individual rights would permit. Political supporters of candidates like Palin and Rick Santorum, for example, wish to outlaw things that do not violate individual rights (e.g. abortion, gay/lesbian marital unions, pornography with consenting adults) but which offend them morally.

They rationalize this with statements like, “You can’t have freedom in a society where anything goes.” Actually, that’s mistaken. If you want the good things that come from freedom, you have to accept the fact that other adults, who do not agree with you on certain matters, are just as free as you are. In a truly just society, all individuals have equal individual rights.

But when they come out in support of “religious liberty,” then the door they’re opening—intentionally or not—is the very same door that Islamic fundamentalists and other would-be religious dictators would gladly impose on us all.

The advocates of religious liberty are guilty of the same collectivism as the advocates of the Big Government/entitlement transfer-of-wealth state. The entitlement state is based on the premise that individual rights are superceded by the rights of “society.” In the name of “society,” private business is run according to politically dictated standards, and fields that should be entirely private (e.g., education and health care) are, for all practical purposes, taken over as well as funded by the government.

It’s ironic to watch advocates of religious liberty try to fight the growth of the Big Government entitlement state, when they’re no more in favor of (or even aware of) the concept of individual rights than are their opponents.

Without recognition and consistent protection of individual rights, all other rights are doomed. The only way to fight for your authentic rights is to uphold and respect the same individual right to be free from force and fraud, a right that everyone should enjoy.

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