As we approach our upcoming April 29th Conference in Rome “Faith, State, and the Economy: Perspectives from East and West“, Acton’s Research Director, Samuel Gregg shares his insights on the relationship between religious and economic liberty and the threats society now faces. Gregg also discusses where he thinks places like Europe and America are heading, as well as what some of the guest speakers will talk about during the conference.
PowerBlog: Why is the Acton Institute’s upcoming April 29th Conference in Rome “Faith, State, and the Economy: Perspectives from East to West” so important and timely?
Samuel Gregg: Religious liberty is obviously an enormous issue today for Catholics as well as other Christians. The sheer number of people who are being killed each year because of their Christian faith should be disturbing for everyone.
What’s often missed, however, is how diminutions in religious freedom affect other liberties, including economic freedom, and vice-versa. Taking away or severely limiting people’s economic liberty because of their religion has been a classic means by which governments have tried to indirectly undermine people’s attachment to their faith. This was one of the tactics used by the government of Queen Elizabeth I against Catholics in England in the sixteenth century, and, I would add, rather successful. And whether it is in the West, the Middle East, or East Asia, we can see this and others patterns emerging in subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways.
Someone once told me that “you need two to tango” regarding human flourishing in free societies. How exactly do religious and economic liberty reinforce one another?
If you allow people economic freedom, it means that you have to give them some space to think and act creatively. But once you concede this form of liberty, it’s very difficult to confine such freedom to the purely economic realm. China’s jumbled opening of the economy since the 1980s has, for all its contradictions, helped create room for more people to reflect upon and ask questions about the meaning of life. And guess what? We now see millions of conversions to Christianity and people wanting to live out their new faith. Moreover, when people convert to Christianity, that creates problems for those governments who want to try and control everything, precisely because while Christianity respects the state’s authority, it has always insisted that Caesar is not god and shouldn’t act as if he is.
Likewise, if a state seeks to diminish religious freedom, it often tries to do so through economic means. And if governments are allowed to get away with undermining religious liberty, there is very little else that it can’t do. I’m not sure some liberty-minded secular people in America and Europe understand this connection.
Do you think America is becoming ever more statist and irreligious? If so, why?
America remains a much more overtly religious society than, say, large swaths of Western Europe. That doesn’t mean that all Americans have especially coherent religious beliefs. In many cases, they clearly don’t. In other cases, it’s a type of “civil religion,” in which people don’t pay too much attention to the truth-claims of different religions but focus rather on the way it can provide lubricant for the social order. Ultimately, I think, that’s an unhealthy mindset, both for religion and society.
At the same time, religion remains just as much a reference point in American life as it was when the French social philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville observed the young Republic in the 1830s. Most Americans are happy to talk about God, and even many of the tiny band of Americans who describe themselves as atheists say that they pray! The positive role played by religion in the various foundings of the United States is a matter of record, and is very difficult even for militant secularists to ignore. As Pope Emeritus Benedict stated on several occasions, one of the major differences between the American Revolution and the French Revolution was the very dissimilar approaches adopted towards religion. Interestingly, at the time of the American Revolution, Catholics (though a tiny minority) were overwhelming supportive of the Revolution, in part because they saw it as a chance to establish religious liberty for themselves.
Alongside these present-day and historical realities, it’s hard to deny the degree of aggressive secularism that reigns, for example, in many American universities—including some of the Catholic institutions that are deeply in thrall to whatever happens to be the latest politically-correct fad—and, to be frank, on much of the “left” of American politics. The same “progressive” side of American life has always pushed for a much bigger role for the state in economic life, despite the manifest failures of expansionist government. Aggressive secularism and statism often seem to go hand-in-hand—though, again, I do worry about the hostility towards religious faith that is now very present in particular liberty-orientated circles.
What do you think are some of the challenges to religious liberty in Europe?
In much of Western Europe and at the level of the EU bureaucracy, aggressive secularism is, like everywhere else, trying to subordinate religious freedom to so-called sexual freedom and the anti-life agenda propagated by the usual suspects. But I also worry that many Christians in Europe don’t seem to realize that getting too close to the state, or being funded by the state (either directly or indirectly), can also encourage the Church to be become wary of challenging the status quo precisely because they fear it might jeopardize their funding. I also think that the church-tax that prevails in countries like Germany and Austria is deeply problematic in terms of its effects on what people think it means to be a Christian in these countries. The churches in the German-speaking world may be wealthy, but no-one would describe them as buoyant and dynamic centers of evangelization. Instead, they seem deeply self-referential (to employ a phrase used by Pope Francis) and notoriously bureaucratic. This is something that Pope Emeritus Benedict underscored on a number of occasions, both before and during his papacy.
What do you think Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, the emeritus bishop of Hong Kong, will talk about during the conference?
Cardinal Zen should be one of the contemporary heroes of anyone who cares about a meaningful conception of religious freedom. So I would expect him to give us some insights into the realities of contemporary mainland China. He’s made a point of noting and praising the strides forward in economic freedom that have occurred in mainland China, but also wondered out loud about why the Communist party seems reluctant to allow the extension of freedom into the religious realm, especially with regard to the Catholic Church. That has not made him popular among China’s Communist party elite or, it should be said, those Christians in the West who, in the name of dialogue, seem reluctant to acknowledge some of the harsh realities of life for Christians (especially Catholics loyal to Rome) in mainland China. Certainly the situation of religious freedom and freedom more generally is “complicated,” shall we say, in China, but Cardinal Zen is one of the few people who has a standpoint that’s not only rooted in reality rather than happy-talk, but also informed by a thorough grasp of the theoretical dimension of these issues.
Tell us something about Archbishop Maroun Lahham of Jordan, who’s also speaking at your conference.
Archbishop Lahham is the vicar of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem for Jordan. Prior to that, he was the archbishop of Tunis in Tunisia. He’s also spent time as a priest in Dubai. Even more significantly, his family has been Christian, as he sometimes notes, since the time of Christ! Sometime we in the West forget that the first Christians were in fact Middle-Easterners.
Archbishop Lahham is probably one of the most important observers of Christian life in the Middle East today and, as we know, Christians (overwhelmingly Catholic and Orthodox in these regions) are presently suffering a great deal in countries like Iraq, Syria and Egypt. He has spoken about these questions on many occasions, including for Cardinal Scola’s Oasis group which focuses upon promoting meaningful inter-religious dialogue instead of repeating the platitudes that, alas, often characterize this conversation.
Jordan has a much, much better record than most Islamic countries when it comes to the treatment of Christians. And it’s also a good listening and watching post for those seeking to understand the religious, political and economic dynamics affecting Christians throughout the Middle East and the Arab and Islamic worlds. This being the case, Archbishop Lahham is uniquely placed to comment on these issues and to help the rest of us understand what’s really happening to the Christian community—which has been heavily involved in commerce for centuries—in the Middle East.
I see that Father Martin Rhonheimer of Rome’s Santa Croce University is also speaking at this event. He’s well known for his work on natural law theory. What does he bring to the discussion?
Fr. Rhonheimer’s contributions to the revival of natural law scholarship are, as you say, extensive, especially in Western Europe where there’s been a concerted effort for decades to marginalize it or empty it of significant content by some Catholic scholars. I suspect, however, that many people don’t know that Fr. Rhonheimer has long maintained an interest in economics, economic theory, and political economy more generally. He’s also written about specific contributors to modern economics such as the economist Wilhelm Röpke: a devout Christian who was probably the primary intellectual architect of the 1948 economic liberalization that made Germany the economic power-house of postwar Western Europe. And, like an increasing number of Catholic and Christian scholars in Europe and America, Fr. Rhonheimer is very conscious of the need to gently remind people of the specific, even unique contribution made by Christianity to the Western tradition of liberty, including religious freedom and economic liberty. These are some of the questions that I suspect he will highlight in his presentation.
And you yourself will be speaking at the conference?
Indeed! Considering the profile and eminence of the other speakers, I’m very much a bit-player. My job will be to try and explore some of the paradoxes of the relationship between religious freedom and economic liberty. It’s actually remarkable how little has been written, either in the popular realm or in the academic arena, on this subject. So to the extent that I can draw some connections between the two forms of liberty—and the relationship is not, I must say, as straight-forward as might be supposed—I hope I can help stimulate some discussion.
This conference is of course taking place just after the canonizations of Blessed John XXIII and Blessed John Paul II. The latter in particular said a great deal about religious liberty but also helped the Church develop its understanding of and appreciation for economic freedom. That in itself should be a great stimulus for conversation! We’re building lots of time for questions and contributions from the audience into the conference program because we want to allow as many people as possible who attend to contribute to the conversation.
In Becoming Europe, Samuel Gregg examines economic culture - the values and institutions that inform our economic priorities - to explain how European economic life has drifted in the direction of what Alexis de Tocqueville called "soft despotism", and the ways in which similar trends are manifesting themselves in the United States.