Journal of Christian Legal Thought Features RFI Scholars

December 11, 2020

The current issue of the Journal of Christian Legal Thought features articles by Timothy Shah, architect and scholar of the Religious Freedom Institute’s (RFI) Freedom of Religious Institutions in Society (FORIS) Project, and Daniel Philpott, senior associate scholar with RFI. 

Institutional Religious Freedom in Full

In his article, “Institutional Religious Freedom in Full: What the Liberty of Religious Organizations Really is and Why it is an ‘Essential Service’ to the Common Good” (beginning at 29), Timothy Shah provides a robust definition of religious freedom and then explores that freedom as it pertains to religious institutions. 

Shah outlines three dimensions of institutional religious freedom: substantive, vertical, and horizontal. Giving priority to the first, he writes:

[The substantive dimension] is the most central dimension of institutional religious freedom because it pertains to the freedom of a religious community or organization to define and constitute itself in the most fundamental ways—i.e., in terms of what it believes and teaches, what constitutes its authentic worship and religious rites, and how its leadership and administration should be organized. (31)

He then explains the vertical dimension as the freedom of religious institutions to establish and maintain their internal structure of leadership and governance, and the horizontal dimension as their freedom to extend into the broader society (e.g., via social services, education, public policy advocacy, etc.).

Highlighting contemporary examples in the U.S., Turkey, and China (among others), Shah explores the sometimes blatant, and other times subtle, ways that governments impinge on institutional religious freedom. Such laws and policies are not only unjust, they are deeply misguided. Shah argues, “[W]hat happens in churches and other religious institutions is too important and too valuable to stay within their walls.” (36) He continues:

To ensure that what is incubated in religious institutions is free to spread well beyond their sanctuaries, we need a broader, rich, and truly multi-dimensional understanding of institutional religious freedom that goes beyond giving religious institutions concessive carve-outs and ministerial “exceptions” so they can be left alone … At issue are the hundreds of millions of people around the world—human beings both religious and non-religious—whose political, social, economic, and spiritual flourishing (and not infrequently survival) depends on the self-organizing dynamism of religious institutions of all kinds. (36-37)

The Islam Question

In his article, “The Islam Question” (beginning at 38), Daniel Philpott identifies religious freedom as not only intrinsically good but also a strategy for building sustainable peace among diverse and sometimes opposing groups. He writes:

Religious freedom … carries potential for promoting justice and peace between Muslim minorities and surrounding populations in Western and non-Western countries, between Western countries and Muslim-majority countries, and within Muslim countries. (39)

But those in influential quarters in the West tend to doubt this favorable view of what religious freedom might contribute in the Muslim world. Foremost among them are what may be called Islamoskeptics, “who hold that violence and intolerance are hardwired in Islam’s texts and widespread within the Muslim world, and that the West should be prepared for enduring conflict.” (41) Philpott then describes an opposing group of what may be called Islamopluralists: 

[Islamopluralists are those] who view Islam as being no different from any other religion in its capacities for peace or its tendencies towards violence and intolerance … If Islamoskepticism holds that promoting religion is futile, Islamopluralism holds that it is unnecessary. … Islamopluralists have difficulty explaining the overall dearth of religious freedom in Islam… (43) 

Philpott takes a more nuanced position:

Both viewpoints capture insights into Islam and today’s Muslim world, but both accounts come up short as well. The Muslim world is amenable to and in need of an expansion of religious freedom. (43)

“[T]here is enough evidence of support,” Philpott argues, “for religious freedom—today, historically, and in the Quran—to doubt that repression is hard-wired in Islam and to make efforts to encourage the development of religious freedom in the world with hopes that these efforts might bear fruit.” (43)

Read the full issue: Journal of Christian Legal Thought – 2020 Vol. 2.

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