By Greg Forster
One of the lectures I delivered at this year’s Acton University conference was on religious freedom. A few people have asked me how I ended up talking about religious freedom when my job involves integrating theology with work and economics. In fact, I originally came to my job promoting the integration of faith, work, and economics because of my interest in freedom of religion. When the church serves the common good, it not only provides a witness that Christianity is a positive force in the community, but it also produces the strong cultural integrity that religious freedom depends upon.
As I emphasized in my Acton lecture, as supporters of religious freedom we want people with diverse beliefs to be able to participate in society on equal terms. People sometimes think that cannot happen unless we have social institutions (businesses, schools, civic associations, etc.) that are morally neutral. They are concerned that some people may be unfairly excluded if these institutions express a moral sense of mission.
The problem with this view is that human beings are moral and cultural creatures. Everything we do is moral, and everything we do is expressed through participation in social institutions. That means every institution has a moral mission, whether we want to acknowledge it or not. Business primarily exists to serve the economic needs of customers, not to make money for investors (although they must do that, too). When people act like their business doesn’t have a moral mission, cynicism and distrust set in, and ultimately the business is likely to fail.
The desire for moral neutrality also paves the way for religious persecution. People who think business is morally neutral do not understand why it is a problem to require Christian business owners to adopt policies that violate their faith. After all, the purpose of business is to make money. It does not, the thinking goes, reflect your conscience. Conscience is something personal and private; it is irrelevant to public life. So why do these Christians think their consciences are at stake when others demand that their businesses conform to non-Christian ethics? They must be irrational or hateful.
On the other hand, when Christians work diligently to serve the common good, they provide a public witness for the Gospel. When Christians run businesses that serve customers well, their faith is manifested in economic institutions that the community values. When Christians advocate for an economy that recognizes human dignity expressed through productive work and opportunity, they remind society of the humane values and virtues necessary for flourishing communities. The end result is communities that value Christianity.
Just as our moral nature shapes institutions, we are in turn shaped by the moral messages our institutions send. Our lives as individuals are shaped in part by structures of meaning that our culture creates. Institutions that aspire to moral neutrality produce individuals who aspire to moral neutrality. They become shallow and selfish. Over time, the cynicism and irresponsibility that these “neutral” institutions cultivate leaves them unable to function. You cannot run a business (or a school, or anything else) with people who cannot be trusted. Religious freedom must eventually be taken away, along with all of our other freedoms, because people have become so corrupt that they cannot be trusted to be stewards of their own lives.
The role of institutions in shaping character, however, also provides an opportunity for Christians. When we manifest our faith in the way we work and participate in the economy, we restore the moral mission of business. We cultivate institutions that form people’s character in virtuous ways. And this, in turn, helps build the cultural integrity that a society needs to trust its people with freedom.
Religious freedom and the integration of faith, work, and economics are interdependent. Without religious freedom, we wouldn’t have the opportunity to live out our faith in our work. Similarly, if we don’t live out our faith in our work, we don’t provide a good witness for the Gospel, or strengthen the integrity of the culture around us. In the long run, a culture without a Gospel witness or its own integrity will not continue to practice religious freedom.