Samuel Gregg, Acton’s director of research, recently wrote about the “complicated relationship” between religious freedom and business. While there may not seem like a natural connection between these two concepts, Gregg points out that, especially recently, we are seeing a number of businesses “impacted by apparent infringements of religious liberty.” He goes on to discuss just how complicated this relationship is:
Until relatively late in the modern era, most Jews in Europe were legally prohibited from formal involvement in political life and barred from serving in particular professions such as law, the civil service, and the military. Throughout Western and Eastern Europe, many Jews consequently gravitated towards commerce and finance as activities in which they were allowed to exercise their talents. To the eternal shame of Christians, the tremendous success of Jews in these areas made them frequent and easy targets for anti-Semitic pogroms (often incited by Christian business rivals) as well as legalized extortions by Christian kings and princes.
A similar pattern may be observed with Jews and Arab Christians in the Middle East. From the seventh century onwards, a second-class legal status was imposed upon most Jews and some Arab Christians in parts of the Muslim world. In his History of the Arab Peoples, the Oxford Arabist and historian Albert Hourani (himself an Arab Christian) relates that Jews and Christians in parts of the Middle East were forced to wear special clothes identifying them as non-Muslims. Apart from being obliged to pay special taxes, most Jews and Christians were also banned from carrying weapons and frequently inhibited from participation in civic life.
Hourani notes, however, that these restrictions meant that many Jews and Christians directed their attention to those aspects of the economy where they were allowed some liberty. Eventually, Middle Eastern Jews and Christians dominated particular spheres of economic life throughout the region, including merchant shipping and banking. Likewise those French Protestants who did not flee to England, the Netherlands, Switzerland, or Prussia after Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 often became very successful in certain forms of business, precisely because it was of the few avenues in which they were allowed to compete with French Catholics.
Obviously this is not an argument for restrictions on religious freedom! It is simply an instance of the law of unintended consequences of unjust discrimination against particular religious groups.
Infringement upon the economic freedom of any specific group of people will “erode some of the basic protections that we today recognize as flowing from a right to religious liberty.” Gregg continues:
Perhaps, however, the strongest interest that business has in being attentive to the religious freedom of individuals and groups is the fact that substantive infringements upon one form of freedom often have significant and negative implications for other expressions of human liberty. If, for instance, governments can substantially nullify religious liberty, then they are surely capable of repressing any other civil liberty. This included rights with particular economic significance, such as the right to economic initiative and creativity, property rights, and the freedom of businesses to organize themselves in ways they deem necessary to (1) make a profit and (2) treat employees in ways consistent with the owner’s religious beliefs.
The good news for business, however, is that there is growing evidence that respect for religious freedom tends to correlate with greater economic and business development. One recent academic article, for instance, found (1) a positive relationship between global economic competitiveness and religious freedom, and (2) that religious restrictions and hostilities tended to be detrimental to economic growth.