Background. Disestablishment (more commonly known as “separation of church and state”) is sometimes described as the most (indeed, perhaps even the only) unique contribution of the American Constitution to the history of political thought. This notion – creating a framework for social belonging that does not depend on religious affiliation – has since been taken up by other nations, and for good reason: disestablishment allows societies to incorporate the strengths of a diverse population, protects the freedom of conscience of minorities, and permits states to function independent of church hierarchies. Implementing the principles of disestablishment, however, have never been as straightforward as we sometimes think, and the “freedom of religion” is sometimes not so free.
Question. In an essay of approximately 500-750 words, consider the limits that have been placed on the free exercise of religion, in U.S. society and elsewhere. In what ways has freedom of religious conviction been defended? In what ways has freedom of religious practice been curtailed? Based on these readings, do you think there are appropriate limits to the freedom of religion?
Issues. A few points to keep in mind as you ponder your argument (these are presented merely to suggest some possible lines of inquiry—you need not address them explicitly in your essay, and you simply don’t have the space to address them all):
- U.S. law routinely limits freedom of religious practice when it becomes “subversive of good order.” Looking at other cases (from Rome, Europe, China, etc.), has a concern with the social regulation of religion served to create a harmonious society or to stir up inter-religious strife?
- How do the principles of disestablishment stand up against its critics? What reasons have we seen for the establishment of state religious institutions? How have we seen disestablishment challenged within American society?