Why do conservatives place such high value on religious freedom? While religious freedom does not serve conservatives only—indeed it serves everyone, even the non-religious—it seems often especially valuable to conservatives. Here’s why.
I. Preserving Tradition and Values
Conservatives often emphasize the importance of preserving tradition and values in society, as well as recognizing the value of what is tried and true. Religious freedom is integral to this preservation, as it safeguards the right of individuals and religious institutions to uphold and pass down their traditional beliefs and values. Conservative thought has a deep respect for established institutions, norms, and moral codes; and religious freedom ensures the continuity of these cultural and ethical foundations.
Furthermore, many conservatives are deeply rooted in religious traditions, with 85% of conservatives reporting to be Christian according to the Pew Research Center study, in addition to other faiths that comprise 3%. The ability to practice one’s faith freely is integral to identity. According to Pew findings, 70% of Conservative Christians report that “Religion is very important in my life.” The preservation of this faith and its traditions fosters cultural continuity, ensuring that time-honored customs, rituals, and morals remain a vital part of society.
II. Limited Government and Individual Liberty
One of the core tenets of conservatism is the belief in limited government intervention in individuals’ lives. Conservatives advocate personal liberty, emphasizing that government should protect the rights of its citizens rather than infringe upon them. Religious freedom aligns with this principle, as it prohibits the government from encroaching on the individual’s right to practice their faith and many of the strong moral beliefs that so many live their lives by.
Conservatives see religious freedom as a necessary bulwark against government overreach allowing individuals to make their own choices regarding faith and spirituality.This aligns with the conservative ethos of self-reliance and personal autonomy.
III. Moral and Ethical Foundations
For many conservatives, religion provides a moral and ethical compass. They draw from religious teachings and beliefs to guide their actions and decision-making. This is reflected in their voting patterns. Conservatives and religious communities are often in agreement about hot button issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, and other forms of sexuality or gender expression. It is vital in a pluralist society that these opinions are not silenced but rather respected, even if not agreed with.
IV. Protection Against Discrimination
Conservatives also appreciate the role of religious freedom in protecting individuals and groups from religious discrimination. Religious freedom ensures that people can express their faith without fear of discrimination or persecution, safeguarding the principle of equality under the law. This protection is consistent with conservative values of justice and fairness. In addition, religious freedom protections ensure that the government does not favor one religion over another or discriminate against those who hold different religious convictions.
While many conservatives desire protection against discrimination, the concept of religious freedom is often interpreted by LGBTQ activists as a force of discrimination and injustice against them. Because of this, religious freedom is especially under attack today. This type of conflict is common in liberal democratic life where people build their lives around certain (sometimes rival) goods. In this case, religion seems to clash with justice. For both LGBTQ activists and religious communities – these goods are highly emotionally charged and can become grounds of bitter conflict when there are feelings of infringement. However, people on both sides of this issue can find common ground. Both LGBTQ activists and religious communities understand the desire to protect their core beliefs. This is the objective of religious freedom- not to push religion on everybody, but to be free to include our faith in the spaces and the practices that we choose to freely participate in. As the Christian faith instructs us to be hopeful, I am confident that this conflict will eventually find resolution. Whether by a legislature or a court, the conflict between religious freedom and minority justice will be worked out. It is vital, however, that whatever such a resolution looks like, it allows wide scope for religious freedom.
V. Voluntary Social Services
Religious institutions play a substantial role in providing voluntary social services and charitable work that comes from the community. Many conservatives believe that such organizations are often more effective, compassionate, and efficient than government programs in addressing the needs of the less fortunate. Religious freedom ensures that these institutions can continue to provide their essential services without government interference.
The ability of religious organizations to operate freely and provide assistance to those in need is a testament to the positive impact of religious freedom on communities. Conservatives see this as an example of the power of civil society and voluntary efforts to address societal issues, aligning with their preference for limited government involvement.
VI. Defense of Traditional Marriage and Family Values
Some conservatives strongly associate religious freedom with their beliefs regarding traditional marriage and family values, even as traditional beliefs are becoming less common. They argue that religious freedom safeguards the ability of individuals and religious institutions to uphold their views on marriage and family life, often rooted in religious doctrine.
In summary, religious freedom holds a principal place in the conservative ethos, aligning with a range of conservative beliefs and values. It preserves tradition, limits government intervention, upholds individual liberty, protects moral and ethical foundations, defends against discrimination, preserves cultural identity, enables voluntary social services, and safeguards traditional family values. By promoting religious freedom, conservatives ensure that individuals can live in accordance with their faith, and that religious institutions can continue their vital role in communities. The protection of religious freedom is not only a matter of principle for conservatives but also a fundamental aspect of preserving a society that makes room for their values and beliefs.