Strategy versus operations in religious freedom


The other day I was chatting with one of my more successful friends about her career. She’s worked in international development for a global foundation, corporate strategy at a Fortune 500 company, and is now the director of product at a startup. She explained that she moved to the startup partly because people who stay in strategy get tagged as smart visionaries who can’t do anything. There’s synergy between strategy and operations of course. But ultimately someone has to build and execute.

I thought about this conversation as I read John Inazu and David French on religious freedom. Consider this passage from Inazu:

The pressure on the category of “religion” raises another question that Smith takes up in Rise and Decline: the notion of “conscience.” Smith notes that at the time of the Framing, the “free exercise of religion” was “virtually synonymous with freedom of conscience.” As a purely linguistic matter, the word “conscience” would have been a better fit than “religion” for the trajectory of “belief” that we have witnessed in American society. It would have more easily encompassed all kinds of non-religious but deeply held beliefs that we see today.

This piece, along with much of Inazu’s writings, shows the beginning of a strategy: freedom of religion is really freedom of conscience. But how would we take this abstract concept and operationalize it? What should I do with Inazu’s ideas?

I have a similar critique for David French:

Conservative intellectuals and conservative activists are digging in for the long fight. I know I’m biased, but NATIONAL REVIEW has posted one great piece after another. God bless Dana Loesch for taking the lead in reaching out to Memories Pizza. Ross Douthat has been invaluable from his lonely outpost at the New York Times. There is simply to much good material to name-check it all.

I wonder how, exactly, intellectuals and activists are “digging in.” What are they doing? This paragraph gives the impression that the intellectuals write and produce ideas. But do these ideas influence activists’ work? How so? I hope French realizes that intellectuals must write with concrete activism in mind.

I know this post has a whiff of hypocrisy because all I do is write in my spare time. So I contribute very little to the intellectual work and nothing to execution. With that admission, let me start sketching out a strategy that I think has a chance of being operationalized.

To continue with the loose business analogy, I see a product gap in religious freedom arguments (RFA). RFA now offer nothing for a few growing markets. There are at least two ways to deal with this gap. We can create completely new RFA. Or we can have the same product but package and sell it differently. (I have some personal experience in the second approach.)

Here’s what I see missing:

  1. RFA for people who are secular / not religious. I think Inazu has the start of something important with freedom of conscience. But it needs to be fleshed out.
  2. RFA for non-Christians. Put another way, RFA needs some good old-fashioned left-wing diversity. Where are my Hindus and Muslims in these conversations? I’ve previously discussed conservatives and diversity. People like French should do more here for no other reason than they’re losing potential allies.

I think Inazu would agree with me on these two points (not so sure about French). But in either case, I hope they both recognize the importance of executing on their ideas. Writing and thinking are not enough.


    1. Thanks for the link. I did see that forwarded around. It’s kind of the opposite of what I’m going for. That link explains the limits of RF for religious folks.

      I’m thinking more about the importance of RF for secular / non-Christians. That’s what I see missing. I think a useful path forward is to note that RF is just a subset of freedom of conscience.

      As for the RFRA laws between federal and state…A very smart science policy blogger who I respect a lot taught me the acronym IANAL:-). So I don’t feel comfortable having a strong opinion.

      Some analyses I’ve read say there was no meaningful difference b/w the federal RFRA and Indiana’s. Others say they’re very different. Since IANAL, I personally withhold judgment.

  1. The limits of religious freedom are an important part of these discussions. At what point does the behavior that could be defended under these laws become a violation of the establishment clause? Does the permissible discrimination target and/or benefit particular faiths? When does free exercise for some mean coercion of others? If I don’t share your faith, what right do you have to infringe on me to satisfy your faith-based obligations?

    As for not being a lawyer, that’s never stopped me from analyzing laws. It’s just made me sure to emphasize that it is not legal advice. Call it a cheap malpractice disclaimer.

  2. I think “deeply held beliefs” is simply an attempt to sanctify personal autonomy. After all, as a matter of operation of the concept; Who has a depth meter? As you should know by now by reading comments on your blog, many people have beliefs that are total nonsense. It is an egocentric absurdity to claim that all beliefs are equal. However, in a culture with no agreed upon standards of truth what can be done? Should important policy be set by the loudest and most dedicated? I think this is what we have now and it isn’t working very well.

    1. So first: please don’t denigrate the other commenters. In addition to violating my comment policy, your claim is not true.

      I think your last couple sentences raise important points. I don’t agree with your framing, however. But you gave me good fodder for a post and I’ll try to respond in greater detail shortly.

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