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Some people lament our tolerance in the U.S. for “religious crazies.” Of course, these misgivings might reflect a certain view that religious people are crazy to begin with, as well as an outright hostility to constitutional protections of religious freedom. Do they mean that religious speech should not be protected? That one’s religious beliefs should not inform their political views? That religious freedom should not exempt anyone from rules imposed by government (the dispute in King vs. Burwell)? These possibilities cover a lot of ground, but none of them stands up to scrutiny in a free and liberal society. In fact, the apparent resentment of the Left toward “religious crazies” largely misses the point: the very expansion of government activity, in kind, degree and complexity, often brings the state into conflict with religious imperatives. And regardless of one’s stance on the taxation of religious activity, exemptions necessarily become more controversial in the sort of high-tax environment needed to fund big government.

But it is not just the secular Left that fails to recognize the inherent conflict between big government and religious liberty. Pope Francis himself seems oblivious to the dangerous implications of big government for religious freedom. His apostolic exhortation for greater reliance on the state to care for the poor simultaneously embraces socialism and condemns capitalism. I take no issue in principle with the provision of a social safety net, but the Pope should be more results-oriented in assessing different forms of social organization and their impacts on poverty. Big government typically fails to achieve the kinds of humane objectives usually espoused by the Left. The sad “road to serfdom” has played out many times in the past. In fact, in an apparent rebuff, Pope Francis’ Venezuelan Archbishops just issued a strong condemnation of socialist solutions to poverty. From Investors.com:

The Venezuelan archbishops make the useful observation that if capitalist economies have problems, socialist alternatives are far worse for the poor and needy. Could it be the pope’s Latin American colleagues on the ground in the cesspool of communism are the ones who can get through to the holy father on economics?

The Pope would do well to listen to his Venezuelan flock or to this great economic thinker, Thomas Sowell, who emphasizes the inability of government to craft solutions that “do no harm.”

Apart from lousy economic results, basic freedoms are seldom immune to compromise under the grip of big government. These reports from China should give the pontiff pause. The Chinese Communist Party is said to feel “threatened” by the growth of Chinese Christianity, and the government is cracking down, dismantling religious symbols and even destroying some churches. Similar outcomes have followed authoritarian governments many times in the past, and of course this isn’t the first crackdown on “religious crazies” under Chinese communism. No one should be surprised. Capitalism, with its miracle of market self-regulation, is the only economic system that is truly consistent with freedom and diversity of religion.