Public Square

“What Direction Are You Moving in? Are You Going to Decline, or Are You Going to Move in the Direction of Long-Term Societal Flourishing?”

A Conversation with Dr. Joseph Connors about the Impact of Religious Freedom on Political and Economic Freedom
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Joe Connors, an associate professor of economics at St. Leo University, is working with IFWE’s Anne Bradley to research a fascinating question: what is the impact of religious freedom on economic and political freedom? Can a society flourish when one or two of these freedoms are present, but not the third? Connors took a break from his research to discuss their findings so far.

I love the last paper you and Anne wrote together, researching economic freedom and the flourishing it produces. That’s what people need to hear. This stuff literally saves lives. Life expectancy has gone up, infant mortality has gone down. That’s awesome.

JC: Across the board, pick something you value, something that’s an aspect of the way you live, and it is better and to a higher degree the freer you are. Life expectancy – you’re going to live longer if you’re in a free society. Mortality rates, access to goods, health care, good health outcomes, happiness, life satisfaction, environmental quality. You go on down the line. I don’t think people think about that much.

With this paper, you’re still researching economic freedom, but you’re linking it to religious freedom in particular, and also political freedom to some degree. What inspired you to research this question? 

JC: For the most part, a lot of the research that’s been done has focused on economic freedom and political freedom. One of the interesting things some researchers have found is that you can sometimes have societies that have one but maybe not the other. It brings up the question, what do you [do] with a country like Singapore, which has a lot of economic freedom, but not a lot of political freedom. What do we do about many of the Middle Eastern countries today? Many of these countries are moving up to the top of the economic freedom index. Okay, well, are these freedoms separable? Does political freedom not matter at all?

People wonder this about China, too.

JC: Right! And so, I’m of the opinion, and again, in a longer-term view, this is where religious freedom comes in – if you look at the history of rights and freedoms, how they come about, basically the three types of freedoms that evolve[d] together were religious freedom, economic freedom, and political freedom. They all kind of evolved together and came out of Christian Europe – slowly. It took a while. Is this just coincidence? Is it just the fact that Europe happened to be Christian, and as they’re pushing for these other rights religious rights just happened to come along? Or, is it that these religious freedoms and rights are just as important?

Political freedom and economic freedom, these types of institutions, rely on cultural background – the values and virtues of a free society. How does that come about? It comes from a moral point of view, and a lot of that comes out of the Judeo-Christian background. It almost seems that you need to have this space where the institutions and the culture that’s supportive of democracy and economic freedom can flourish and grow. If that’s the case, what does it say about countries like China and the Middle East? It could mean one of two things. Does it mean they’re moving in the right direction? As they start to liberalize, then eventually they’ll allow these religious [liberties] and that will help them grow as well and form a civil society? Or does it mean that they’ll be a flash in the pan? That these three freedoms go together, and if you start to impair one of them, eventually they’ll fail?

You guys are still doing research. What’s the most intriguing thing you’ve discovered so far?

JC: If this idea is true, if religious freedom creates this space so you can have these cultural institutions, norms, and values that support a free society, then it should enrich the outcomes you typically get. When you think of a civil society, you should see more charity and all the other things you think about when you think about flourishing. The results I’ve been looking at cover how religious freedom impacts our notions of flourishing. On a preliminary level, the data, it does seem to have an impact on the average income level of each person. It basically means there will be less poverty and more overall, general prosperity. So far that’s kind of been the surprising outcome. I didn’t think it would be that strong of a result.

What were you expecting? 

JC: I was expecting to find, and haven’t actually looked at this yet, but I wanted to look at the impact on corruption. If this does matter, then we would expect to see less corruption. I was expecting this to have an impact on non-monetary aspects of flourishing. I wasn’t expecting the impact on income because I’ve been expecting the impact to be had on non-monetary indicators.

You and Anne both have said that religious freedom is necessary but not sufficient for flourishing. What does that mean? How do these three freedoms reinforce each other to produce flourishing?

JC: If you’re putting a car together, in order for it to run there are going to be pieces that aren’t really needed. A window. That’s neither necessary nor sufficient. But there are probably things like spark plugs, for example. If all you have are spark plugs, those are necessary, but you’re going to need other parts to make the car run. So the idea of something being a necessary but not sufficient component of something is to say, “Okay, you need to have some type of religious freedom to have flourishing.” But when religious freedom is absent, it’s not as if there is absolutely no flourishing. But we think of it in terms of flourishing more fully. To really flourish you need all three. You need religious freedom so you can fully live out your vocation and how you’re going to serve God. You need political and economic freedom to really flourish in the way we think about it.

The biblical story that pops into my head every once in awhile when I think of these three freedoms is when the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt. They didn’t have any of these freedoms. There’s not a lot of flourishing going on. Clearly they wanted to get out of there so they could have more of all three of these freedoms. But God is telling Moses, “You go tell Pharaoh, ‘Let my people go so that they may worship me.'” I thought it was interesting that yes, they wanted economic freedom, they wanted political freedom, but probably just as important, if not more important, is that they wanted to be free so they could worship God.

Of these three, if this is a three-legged stool, how does that process start? Which leg do you build first? Is there one you need to establish before you have the other two?

JC: It’s hard to get a right answer. The way to think about it is that if you want a long-term, flourishing, prospering society, you need to build up all three. The question becomes, “Suppose you have one or two but not the other?” Well, then [the] issue is, what direction are you going to move in? Are you going to decline, or are you going to move in the direction of long-term societal flourishing?

We don’t have enough data, and I don’t think we understand the relationship between these three freedoms enough to fully say okay, if you’re like Singapore and you have economic freedom first and not political, not religious, does that get you towards a long-term flourishing society? I don’t know. Which direction should we move in first? It’s hard to ultimately know.

As a Christian, and again, this viewpoint is going to be different depending on who you ask, if someone is [a] truly committed Christian…if you were to restrict someone’s religious freedom, for a committed Christian that would be pretty rough. Again, it could be just the same way if you restricted someone’s economic freedom. Some people have gone so far as to say that when God no longer takes primacy of place in terms of what your culture and society values, you’ll eventually lose all three of those freedoms. Mankind was created by God to give him glory and to flourish, and the best way to do that is when you can serve him fully in your faith, in your work, and in how you organize society and your families and communities and larger governmental structures.

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