(By Andrew MacKie-Mason)
The most convincing modern justification for the two religious freedom clauses in the US Constitution is twofold: they restrict bad government and allow good religion.
Governments are better, the argument goes, when their citizens are free to commit to a wide range of beliefs. And they are better when they don't become the battleground for the (at times excessive) doctrinal battles waged between religious adherents.
Religions are better when they convert through persuasion rather than force. They are better – purer – when the temptation of state power is outside of their grasp.
Unfortunately, modern political discourse tends to focus almost entirely on the relationship between religious freedom and governments. "The government can't do that," we say, "because it will restrict religious freedom." But we're seeing a resurgence of "big-government religionists," who aren't paying enough attention to the second justification for religious freedom.
Granted, we aren't seeing the establishment of state churches. There are no (sane) individuals calling for religious qualifications for office, or suggesting that the state should settle doctrinal disputes. The "quasi-establishments" that are being sought may even be constitutional. But that doesn't mean they're not dangerous.
Take the marriage debate. The argument that allowing marriage equality will "damage the institution of marriage" should be familiar to everyone. But the real nature of that argument was made more clear by Rob Vischer a few days ago. He asks whether civil unions could be "bad for marriage" because people who might otherwise have chosen to enter the quasi-religious institution of marriage instead opt for a civil union. It's a numbers game against a religious background: if less people get married, then marriage is weaker, and if marriage is weaker then society is becoming dangerously less religious and abandoning important religious normative structures that have been worked into the institution of marriage.
But even if that sounds plausible to you, dig a little deeper. The problem that is being pointed to isn't one of an external force "attacking" a religion, where the state might have a legitimate role in intervening. Instead, it's the people – the constituents of a religion, if you will – opting for a different set of norms. And the proposed remedy is to limit their options: to force them down one "correct" path rather than another.
That kind of coercion would be a recipe for weaker institutions. It's how we make bad religion.