This Article is part of a symposium issue titled "Freedom of the Church in the Modern Era." Freedom of the church, roughly, connotes the independent nature or sovereignty of the church. The most dramatic moment in its development was the eleventh century Investiture Controversy, with its confrontation between Pope Gregory VII and Emperor Henry IV at Canossa, but it has a long prior and subsequent history. Recently, with the renewed scholarly interest in the institutional rights of churches and religious organizations and the Supreme Court's decision affirming the "ministerial exception" doctrine in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, the idea of "freedom of the church" has taken on new champions -- and critics.
This Article, from an author who has written supportively about freedom of the church and/or religious institutionalism in prior work, takes a deliberately unromantic look at freedom of the church. It evaluates it through two useful disciplinary lenses: history, and the economics of religion. Both historical and economic analysis of the concept of "freedom of the church" suggest the following conclusions: (1) The concept should be treated carefully and with a full awareness of its mixed history, without undue romanticism on the part of its champions, or a confident conclusion on the part of its critics that it is no longer necessary. (2) Whatever the concept of "freedom of the church" means today, the present version is decidedly diminished and chastened, a shadow of the medieval version. Supporters of freedom of the church should welcome that fact. Freedom of the church persists, and may have continuing value, precisely because it has become so domesticated. (3) There are solid historical and economic grounds for some form of freedom of the church or religious institutional autonomy. In particular, religion's status as a credence good, whose value and reliability is certified by religious agents such as ministers, strongly suggests that state interference with religious employment relations can be dangerous to a church's well-being and long-term survival. (4) The history and economics of religion also teach us something about the optimal conditions for freedom of the church -- the conditions under which it is likely to do the most good and the least harm. In particular, they suggest that champions of freedom of the church ought to welcome religious pluralism and a strong non-establishment regime.
The Article closes with some speculation about why there has been a recent revival of interest in freedom of the church, including the possibility that its resurgence, even if it is fully justified, also involves an element of rent-seeking by religious institutions.
There are two broader underlying suggestions as well. First, there are good reasons to support some version of freedom of the church, but it deserves a more critical and nuanced examination by friends and adversaries alike. Second, legal scholars writing on church-state issues have paid far too little attention to the literature on the economics of religion.