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Religious Freedom, Constitutional Recognition, and Democracy

Religious freedom as expressed in Dignitatis Humanae (DH), can express itself institutionally in diverse ways that should not necessarily imply an acceptance of secularization or emptying the public space of religion. One of the factors that hinders the advance of religious freedom is the perception, in certain parts of the world, that religious freedom equates to the acceptance of a cultural and political model that requires a secularization of public institutions and society. This perception is a serious obstacle not only for religious freedom, but for the democratization processes that tend to equate democracy with Western secularism. Catholic Moral Theology should be aware that the endorsement of religious freedom in DH is not an endorsement of a particular constitutional model, although DH 2 affirms that the “right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.”

The idea of twin tolerations crafted by comparative political scientist Alfred Stepan (1936-2017) can help articulate DH’s affirmation of religious freedom, with the diversity of cultural and religious frameworks of societies around the world. Stepan’s notion of twin tolerations started to take shape – as he himself acknowledged – during his many trips around the world, when he realized that Western secularism was not necessary for democracy to take root in other parts of the world. He argued that pure laicitè of the type of post-1905 France only exists in textbooks. Even in France, in more ways than one, religion is involved with the state.[1] He realized that there was a problem between secularization theory and theories of democratization. Not only that, he also realized that a sizable number of countries that were real democracies did not correspond with the classical textbook description of secularism as a condition for real democracy. What was needed for real democracy was not secularization, but a certain degree of differentiation between religion and the state. That is why Stepan began to talk about twin tolerations.

Stepan’s argument starts by acknowledging that all theorists of democratization accept that a necessary condition to achieve a successful move to democracy is free and contested elections of the kind discussed by Robert A. Dahl in his classical book Polyarchy.[2] This requires eight institutional guarantees: “freedom to form and to join organizations; freedom of expression; the right to vote; eligibility for public office; the right of political leaders to compete for support and votes; alternative sources of information; free and fair elections; and institutions for making government policies depend on votes and other expressions of preference.”[3] Stepan argues that these conditions are necessary but not enough. To be a real democracy, the constitution of a country must respect fundamental liberties and effectively protect minorities, including religious ones. As long as a group does not use violence or violate the rights of other citizens, all groups – including religious ones – must be allowed to present and represent their interests, publicly and politically. In terms of religious freedom, in a certain democratic state this entails that public institutions must be free, within the framework of the constitution and of human rights, to generate policies. That means that religious institutions should not have, constitutionally, privileges allowing them to determine public policy. However, individuals and religious groups should have complete freedom of worship, at least privately. These individuals and groups should also be able to advance and defend their values publicly if they do not violate other citizens’ rights, the law, or the constitution. Ultimately, no social group can be prohibited from forming a political party if they stay within the limits of the democratic game.[4] This set of rules is what Stepan calls twin tolerations and he affirms that “within this broad framework of minimal freedom for the democratic state and minimal religious freedom for citizens, an extraordinarily broad range of concrete patterns of religious-state relations would meet our minimal definition of a democracy.”[5] A comparative political scientist, Stepan is able to present many constitutional frameworks that respond to the twin tolerations respect of minimal freedom for the democratic state and minimal religious freedom for citizens. Actually, there are many countries that  are real democracies in which there is an established religion, and in which democracy does not equate to the classical textbook French laicité. He gives the example of Greece, India or Indonesia.

In a time in which democracy is under attack—The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index is at its lowest in 15 years— a defense of religious freedom of the type of twin tolerations – in its many possible concrete political shapes –might be of help. In his message for the celebration of the World Day of Peace of 2011, Benedict XVI affirmed that religious freedom is “the litmus test for the respect of all the other human rights.”[6] To present a political model of religious freedom acceptable for those who reject secularization and the emptying of the public space of any religious reference, might be today, paradoxically, the best support for democracy and human rights.

[1] Joseph Blankholm, ‘“Twin Tolerations” Today: An Interview With Alfred Stepan’, The Immanent Frame, June 15, 2012

[2] Dahl, Robert Alan. Polyarchy: Participation and Opposition. New Haven, Conn;: Yale University Press, 1971.

[3] Stepan, A. (2012) Religion, Democracy and the “Twin Tolerations” in Shah, T.S., Stepan, A. and Duffy Toft, M. (Eds.), Rethinking Religion and World Affairs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012, 56-57.

[4] Ibid, 57.

[5] Ibid.