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Monday, May 11, 2015

Managing religion

Governments do not simply encounter religious beliefs and teachings, they also do and seek (without always admitting it) to shape and manage them, their content, and their development.  A recent reminder:  Hillary Clinton was in the news recently when she said, in a speech, that "deeply seated religious beliefs" "will have to be changed" in order to secure broader abortion rights and access to reproductive health care and contraception.  

Another:  this story ("China orders Muslim shopkeepers to sell alcohol, cigarettes, to 'weaken' Islam") shows a modern government seeking, for its own purposes, to weaken the hold of religious beliefs on its subjects by, in part, undermining those beliefs.  Here's a bit:

Chinese authorities have ordered Muslim shopkeepers and restaurant owners in a village in its troubled Xinjiang region to sell alcohol and cigarettes, and promote them in “eye-catching displays,” in an attempt to undermine Islam’s hold on local residents, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported. Establishments that failed to comply were threatened with closure and their owners with prosecution.

Facing widespread discontent over its repressive rule in the mainly Muslim province of Xinjiang, and mounting violence in the past two years, China has launched a series of “strike hard” campaigns to weaken the hold of Islam in the western region. Government employees and children have been barred from attending mosques or observing the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. In many places, women have been barred from wearing face-covering veils, and men discouraged from growing long beards.

Both stories, it seems to me, are reminders that claims about government "neutrality" with respect to religion are as much aspirational as historical or descriptive.  Governments care about religious beliefs and always have.  Our constitutionally expressed hope is that we can meaningfully constrain our authorities from doing what, as authorities, they could be expected to do, i.e., manage the content of religion for their own purposes (which might, of course, be entirely good purposes).  

It's worth remembering, I think, that governments are not limited to heavy-handed tactics like China's -- licensing requirements, accreditation standards, spending conditions, and (as we have been reminded recently) tax exemptions are also available to good, liberal, constitutional governments.  I explored this idea, a decade or so ago, in this article, "Assimilation, Toleration, and the State's Interest in the Development of Religious Doctrine":

Thirty-five years ago, in the context of a church-property dispute, Justice William Brennan observed that government interpretation of religious doctrine and judicial intervention in religious disputes are undesirable, because when "civil courts undertake to resolve [doctrinal] controversies..., the hazards are ever present of inhibiting the free development of religious doctrine and of implicating secular interests in matters of purely ecclesiastical concern." This statement, at first, seems wise and fittingly cautious, even unremarkable and obvious. On examination, though, it turns out to be intriguing, elusive, and misleading. Indeed, Justice Brennan's warning presents "hazards" of its own, and its premises - if uncritically embraced - can subtly distort our constitutional discourse. 

This Article provides a careful and close examination of the statement's premises and implications, and concludes that, far from being a "purely ecclesiastical concern," the content of religious doctrineand the trajectory of its development are matters to which even a secular, liberal, and democratic government will almost certainly attend. It is not the case that governments like ours are or can be "neutral" with respect to religion's claims and content. As this Article shows, the content, meaning, and implications of religious doctrine are and have long been the subjects of government power and policy. Secular, liberal, democratic governments like ours not only take cognizance of, but also and in many ways seek to assimilate - that is, to transform - religion and religious teaching. And, it is precisely because such governments do have an interest in the content, and, therefore, in the "development," of religious doctrine - an interest that they will, if permitted, quite understandably pursue - that authentic religious freedom is so fragile.

UPDATE:  Prof. Steve Lubet sends me this note (and gave permission for me to add it to the post):  

My question is whether you have seen a transcript of the Hillary Clinton speech that you characterize as “managing religion.”  I have not seen one (and I am not sufficiently motivated to listen to the 22 minute video), but I think it is likely inaccurate that she was suggesting that “attitudes have to be changed” by the government.  You are reading a lot into the words “to be.”  It is at least as plausible, I think, to assume she meant that attitudes will simply have to change – as social attitudes often do – on their own, before there is widespread acceptance of reproductive rights. 

 Clinton does not, as far as I can tell, identify the change agent.  Lumping such a statement along with Chinese government coercion is, I think, quite a stretch.

Posted by Rick Garnett on May 11, 2015 at 11:28 AM in Religion, Rick Garnett | Permalink

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