Who Needs Autonomous Religions?

In his 1993 book, The Culture of Disbelief, Stephen L. Carter said, “autonomous religions play a vital role as free critics of the institutions of secular society.” The hubbub surrounding the Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision makes it clear that the culture is flummoxed by any idea that a religion could be autonomous. It is autonomous religion that teaches its members to live by their principles 24/7. That little icon, 24/7, is the key to the decision in the Hobby Lobby case, and it underlies a great many ongoing disputes.
Twenty-first century culture deifies the notion of living 24/7. Be a dreamer. Seek your goals and don’t let anyone crush your dream. Stand up for yourself. Be who you are 24/7, and don’t let anyone steal your self from you. This is the mantra of secular self-actualization, but when a person of faith lives by his or her faith 24/7, all of a sudden this commitment means that this person wants to push his faith off on other people, and the culture cannot tolerate someone who does that. The fact that activities to explain faith or even invite other people to believe are not the same thing as becoming tyrannical over other people seems not to be important. The important thing is that somebody somewhere has decreed that people with religious faith must keep their faith to themselves, this despite the fact that other people’s beliefs assault people of faith in the form of ads on websites for general news and public service announcements ceaselessly teaching the philosophies politicians espouse make it difficult to watch or listen to any content on any subject without being invited, or even forcefully motivated, to think what someone else thinks is a good idea.
Comments online and even on television and twitter repeat the cultural accusation that the Supreme Court has ruled that an employer may invade the bedroom of an employee. Yet all the owners of Hobby Lobby ever asked was the Constitutional right to “exercise” their faith. They did not ask that the law be changed to require every American citizen to do what they do. They asked only to be free to live according to the teachings of their faith. They learned the teachings, because in the USA, their religion is autonomous. The government of the US, unlike the government of China, does not try to tell any religion what it must teach. Unlike the government of Tajikistan, it does not tell parents that they may not teach their religion to their children. Unlike the government of Laos, it does not withdraw citizenship from someone whose faith principles prevent him from celebrating local animist rituals that other citizens practice habitually. In the USA, the Constitution gives each religion the autonomy to decide its own teachings and the freedom to teach its adherents the principles of its faith. Every follower, like the Christian owners of Hobby Lobby is protected by the Constitution when “exercising” the principles taught by his religion.
Why does Carter believe that the role of religions is vital to a secular society? The answer lies in the values taught by religions. Secularists tend to think that whatever makes an individual happy is right for that individual. This rule of thumb may work for a person who lives in isolation, but not so well for communities. In a community, people need standards of more enduring value and broader application than each person’s individual muse.
The important thing to know about autonomous religion is that it operates independently; nobody outside the religion’s governing structures tells the religion what to believe or what to teach. An autonomous religion determines its beliefs, its teachings and its values without input from the culture or the government. In fact, those entities, important as they are, have no influence on the teachings of an autonomous religion. The religion has its own sacred sources from which it receives direction with regard to principles.
Furthermore, an autonomous religion reacts and develops independently of culture or government. In the Hobby Lobby case, the developments which resulted in passage of the Affordable Care Act derived from political considerations shaped by secular pressures in the culture. Politics may feel the need to respond to cultural pressure, because the people in the culture vote, but an autonomous religion has no obligation to voters. Its wisdom and moral guidance does not come from the culture; it comes from the religion’s sacred sources by means of writings, tradition, revelation or any combination of those elements. There may be religions that are culture-oriented, but if so, they are rare and sparsely followed. Hobby Lobby’s owners live by a religious tradition of values that go back thousands of years and that have been taught consistently to millions of believers. These religious values are shaped by revelation, tradition and sacred writings, none of which take any note of changing cultural trends. It is very common for cultural trends to clash with immovable religious standards. An attempt to compel people whose moral fiber is shaped by their faith poses incalculable stresses that the government need not impose. The Constitution is designed specifically to prevent the behemoth of government from imposing such stresses on people of faith.
The Constitutional solution is important for the health of the nation. When people are compelled to choose between faith and government, the pressure is incalculable. Early Christians faced exactly this kind of pressure, and there was no Constitutional protection for them. They were beaten, imprisoned, tortured, and executed, because there was no protective buffer between individuals and that powerful government. Good people died, because they could not sacrifice the faith that sustained their lives. Strong people died. Talented people died. Leaders died. The Empire lost many valuable citizens because the empire of Rome could not tolerate autonomous religions.
Thank goodness the government of the USA is constrained by the Constitution to allow religions to exist in autonomy. The government may not choose a single religion and force everyone to belong. The chosen church may not deliver edicts to the head of state in opposition to the will of the people. In the USA, the autonomy of the religions sets up a culture in which the values taught by the religions are expressed in the political discourse and the decisions of the electorate, not in the administrative bureaucracy of government. The values expressed in the votes of the people become the values that shape specific acts, but at no time is any particular religion “in power.” The citizens with their votes are always “in power.”
The Hobby Lobby decision is an example of what happens when the autonomy of religions and the fundamental human rights of believers are respected. The Hobby Lobby decision gave government the guidance it needed in order to achieve what it said were compelling government interests without exerting tyrannical control over private citizens whose religious convictions were outraged by the Affordable Care Act.