Skip to comments.Rethinking Religious Liberty
Posted on 04/25/2013 3:09:57 PM PDT by NYer
In a previous article, “The Puzzle of Religious Liberty,” I brought before readers a rather vexing quandary. Somehow our hearty affirmation of religious libertywhich would seem to be a good thingends up producing a secular state that uses its powers to enforce a secular agenda that contradicts our religious liberty.
How does it happen? In order to limit governmental interference in our religion, we declare that we each have a right to define our own particular view about God and how we shouldor if we shouldworship Him. Or Her. Or It.
But the practical result of our each individually exercising this right is, as would be expected, to multiply religious diversity. Catholics make up about a quarter of the US population, and Protestants about double that, but Protestantism itself is divided into myriad significantly distinct denominations. If you doubt that, go to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, and start clicking through the divisions and subdivisions of Evangelical Protestant Churches or Mainline Protestant Churches.
The greater the diversity, the greater the need for particular religious believers or groups of like-minded believers to be protected from the imposition of others’ beliefs upon them. Add to the Christian mix Jews, Orthodox, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus, and the substantial differences in core beliefs become even greater.
In legal terms, the greater the religious diversity, the greater the desire to keep any one religious view from becoming established, i.e., from using the powers of the state to impose its particular doctrines. Hence, the greater power given to the government to ensure that no one’s religious beliefs are represented by the government. In America, the result has been the use of government power to subtract particular religious beliefs from public, political view.
The state-sponsored subtraction began in earnest after the landmark Supreme Court case Everson v. Board of Education (1947), which declared that the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause demanded the erection of “a wall of separation between church and state.” This wall, so it was claimed, is necessary to keep any one church from commandeering the state, so that all may enjoy religious liberty.
Here comes the puzzle of religious liberty, at least as it has played out for us. The subtraction of beliefs leaves, as a remainder, “no one’s religious beliefs,” or more accurately, non-belief. Non-belief thereby becomes the established state worldview. Secularism takes the place of an established religion.
Secularism is not neutral. It is a quite definite worldview, with its own version of the cosmos and the place of human beings in it, one in which God has been subtracted. The state-sponsored subtraction of religious beliefs in the name of religious freedom ends up establishing a worldview based upon the subtraction of God from the cosmos.
Freedom of religion ends up yielding a state defined by secularists bent on imposing freedom from religion. The state turns against religion, and becomes, increasingly, a violator of religious freedom rather than its protector. Crosses are taken down. Bibles are banned from schools. Public prayers are forbidden. Crèches are removed from public places. Marriage is forcibly redefined. Mandates are issued (such as the HHS mandate requiring Catholic entities to provide contraceptives, abortifacients, and sterilization in their insurance coverage). The public square is secularized, and secular morality is imposed from above.
Pope Benedict’s warning about secularism
Pope Benedict, in his address to the American bishops in their ad limina pilgrimage to Rome in 2012, warned of the very real dangers of radical secularism, noting its increasing tendency to violate religious liberty:
It is imperative that the entire Catholic community in the United States come to realize the grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism which finds increasing expression in the political and cultural spheres. The seriousness of these threats needs to be clearly appreciated at every level of ecclesial life. Of particular concern are certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion.
In a way, Pope Benedict’s remarks capture the puzzle of religious liberty. The state’s forcible subtraction of any definite belief ends up creating a secular state hostile to religion.
For radical secularists, this is a boon. Religion is either eliminated or privatized. In either case, it is rendered politically and culturally inconsequential. But for Christians, this is very serious problem, and requires of us a rethinking of what we meanand even more, what we should meanby religious liberty.
The Church’s Declaration of Religious Freedom
As a Catholic, I cannot attempt to rethink religious liberty without consulting the Second Vatican Council’s Dignitatis Humanae, subtitled (if we might call it that) “On the Right of the Person and of Communities to Social and Civil Freedom in Matters Religious.”
But “consult” is the wrong word. The Council’s statements are binding on me as a Catholic. As Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium makes clear, “Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent” (LG, 25).
Whatever this Declaration of Religious Freedom might mean, it cannot mean my freedom to dissent from the Council’s pronouncements about religious freedom. And this is what Dignitatis Humanae has to say:
This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such wise that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.
The council further declares that the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself. This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.
But here’s the tricky part: “the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason.”
Freedom’s ultimate roots
According to the Catechism, “The dignity of the human person is rooted in his creation in the image and likeness of God,” an obvious reference to Genesis 1:26-27. Moreover, “The divine image is present in every man” (CCC, 1700-1702). Human reason is able to grasp this truth insofar as it affirms that we are endowed with a “spiritual and immortal soul,” which is the source of man’s capacity to reason. “By his reason, he is capable of understanding the order of things established by the Creator. By free will, he is capable of directing himself toward his true good.”
So it is that “[b]y virtue of his soul and his spiritual powers of intellect and will, man is endowed with freedom, an ‘outstanding manifestation of the divine image’” (CCC, 1702-1705). That’s where we ultimately get our freedom.
In sum, the Church’s assertion of the right to religious freedom is rooted in, has its foundation in, the dignity of the human person. This dignity is itself defined in terms of a very specific anthropology: one which assumes that human beings are distinct creatures endowed with immaterial, immortal souls who, by virtue of their souls, are capable of reason and free will.
The freedom to deny the roots of freedom?
But radical secularism has its own anthropology, one rooted in reductionist materialism that denies the existence God, the immaterial soul, and all too often the power of reason and the existence of free will.
That raises the obvious but generally overlooked question. Does the right to religious liberty include the freedom to believe in a worldview (religious, quasi-religious, or otherwise) that undermines the dignity of the person, upon which the right to religious freedom rests?
Does the right include the right to think that religion is bunk, and harmful bunk at that, and should be eliminated by force, and failing that, walled out of the public square? Does it include the right to believe that human beings are no different, in dignity, from a rabbit, squirrel, or amoeba? The right to believe that human beings have no immortal soul, and hence no free will, but are, in fact, material epiphenomena of their genes? The right to believe that morality is completely relative, and should be defined solely by each person’s goal of maximizing physical pleasure and avoiding physical pain?
In short, do we have a right to believe in a secular worldview, the worldview espoused by radical secularism which, as Pope Benedict has warned, is increasingly engaged in attacking religious liberty? Is that what Dignitatis Humanae meant by declaring the right to religious liberty?
The right to define the universe?
It’s more difficult to answer that question than one might suppose, and goes beyond the scope of this article to deal with adequately. Perhaps we can make a good beginning by seeing what it might mean to affirm that we have the right to believe anything.
In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Catholic justice Anthony Kennedy uttered the infamous declaration, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.”
That is the ultimate declaration of liberty, and hence the most expansive definition of the right to believein this case, the right to believe anything. It is no accident that this account of “liberty,” “right,” and “belief” was uttered in the name of the protection of the right to abortion. The right to believe anything means the right to believe anything morally.
Did Kennedy, a Catholic, get liberty right? Is that what Kennedy thought was intended by Dignitatis Humanae?
This question is directly relevant to our attempt to rethink religious liberty. In Kennedy’s version of liberty, the most expansive view of liberty imaginable, the right to believe whatever you want about God, about religion, is a kind of subset of “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
If we have such a right, or if the state thinks we have such a right, then the powers of the state must be harnessed to protect it. That makes the state the protector and enforcer of the most radical kind of relativism.
The dictatorship of relativism
And that brings forth the possibility of what Pope Benedict aptly called a “dictatorship of relativism.” In his opening remarks to the conclave in 2005 that would end up electing him to the papacy, then-Cardinal Ratzinger warned, “We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.”
This dictatorship of relativism is, as the Pope rightly noted, not neutral toward Christianity, but actively in opposition. It is also opposed to religious freedom because it destroys the spiritual, intellectual, and moral truths that form the foundation of religious freedom.
Simply put, relativism cannot be the defining view of any society without destroying it. As Pope Benedict said to the American bishops in the ad limina address I’ve already quoted,
At the heart of every culture, whether perceived or not, is a consensus about the nature of reality and the moral good, and thus about the conditions for human flourishing. In America, that consensus, as enshrined in your nation’s founding documents, was grounded in a worldview shaped not only by faith but a commitment to certain ethical principles deriving from nature and nature’s God. Today that consensus has eroded significantly in the face of powerful new cultural currents which are not only directly opposed to core moral teachings of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but increasingly hostile to Christianity as such.
In other words, radical secularism destroys religious liberty by eroding “ethical principles deriving from nature and nature’s God.” The inherent relativism also leads to the destruction of the human person, as Pope Benedict made clear in the address to the conclave:
When a culture attempts to suppress the dimension of ultimate mystery, and to close the doors to transcendent truth, it inevitably becomes impoverished and falls prey, as the late Pope John Paul II so clearly saw, to reductionist and totalitarian readings of the human person and the nature of society.
Rethinking Religious Liberty 101
I will not pretend that, in this short article, I’ve provided the last word in rethinking religious liberty, but perhaps it is a worthy beginning, a very short “101 Course”maybe just the first lecture.
What we have seen, I hope, is what religious liberty cannot meanat least for Catholics. It cannot mean the right to believe whatever you want. Religious liberty as a right is, by the Church’s account, rooted in a definite understanding of the human person, one that, if denied, actually undermines religious liberty, and all too easily leads to a dictatorship of relativism or even to political totalitarianism.
Moreover, if radical secularism is so inclined to turn against Christianityespecially if it gains privileged access to state powerthen somehow the right to believe anything, including to hold the tenets of radical secularism, must be questioned rather than assumed. As Pope Benedict warned in his Light of the World, radical secularism has become a kind of “abstract, negative religion” which “is being made into a tyrannical standard that everyone must follow.” To this we may add, that negative religion of radical secularism should not be the established religion of the state, i.e., the established worldview that polices the public square. That would spell the end of religious liberty.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI began to warn us about this back in 2005 when, as the Prefect for the Congregation of the Faith, he led the Pro-Eligendo Mass prior to the Conclave. In his homily, he noted:
How many winds of doctrine have we known in recent decades, how many ideological currents, how many ways of thinking. The small boat of the thought of many Christians has often been tossed about by these waves - flung from one extreme to another: from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism and so forth. Every day new sects spring up, and what St Paul says about human deception and the trickery that strives to entice people into error (cf. Eph 4: 14) comes true.
Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism. Whereas relativism, that is, letting oneself be "tossed here and there, carried about by every wind of doctrine", seems the only attitude that can cope with modern times. We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires.
I don’t think we need to ‘rethink’ religious liberty in general so much as the ridiculous liberal interpretation of the establishment clause ... which has been re-written as the “endorsement” clause.
A manger scene is not an establishment of religion. Teaching that God exists in a public school is not an establishment of religion. A Christmas play — whether Santa Claus or the Baby Jesus — is not an ESTABLISHMENT of religion.
They might be endorsements of the majority religion ... but endorsements are not unconstitutional under a reasonable interpretation of the 1st amendment, and should not be outlawed.
Modern secularism is a failure, and its results can bee seen in the nations of Europe who have abandoned their heritage. Every society has a core belief system and requires it. That’s why we have ‘In God We Trust’ on our dollar bills, and the presence of the Ten Commandments is visible at our highest court. This doesn’t mean we operate in a theocracy as Iran. You have the freedom to practice whatever you want, such is your right. However, the nation was built on Christianity, which separates our society from that in India or Japan. It is distinct. If you seek to wipe out the country’s foundation in Christianity in favor of a secular vacuum, it WILL be filled by something else eventually. Likely one of the two most agressive belief systems in the world. Atheism and Islam, and such societies have only bought death to their victims.
In what way is teaching the major tenent of a religion or religions in public school not an establishment of said religion or religions? The schools should not mention God or gods at all, whether affirming His or their existence or denying it. I am a Catholic and I do not think public schools are a place where my children or anyone’s children should learn about religion.
The battle to squeeze our beliefs into public schools, whether we can win it or not, is not a battle we should fight. We have our marching orders and we have the greatest weapon ever created. Do we need to use it against our enemies’ children? No. If you truly believe, as I do, that reason and logic lead one to faith in God and His Son, we need not dilute our message, dilute our truth, by trying to force it upon those protected from it by this country’s laws. You choose to live here, I choose to live here. We must work within this framework in order to validate that decision.
It has nothing to do with it. The parents decide what to teach their kids and the school teaches what they want taught. If all the parents who care happen to be Catholic, Catholicism is taught, if Baptist -- Evangelical Christianity is taught, if Jewish -- Judaism is taught. Of course in reality there will be a choice of religious classes to attend because school districts have families of many religions.
In America, since the early 1900's, we have allowed that movement which now self-describes as "progressive" to redefine the Founders' ideas of liberty, especially as it relates to freedom of conscience and religious liberty.
May we, each and all, use the technology available to us to study the ideas which motivated the men and women of America's founding period to create such a clear statement of understanding of the Source of life, rights, liberty and law. Perhaps we may be able to influence and guide new generations into what Jefferson, in his First Inaugural, called "the only road that leads to peace, liberty and safety."
"Kings or parliaments could not give the rights essential to happiness, as you confess those invaded by the Stamp Act to be. We claim them from a higher source - from the King of kings, and Lord of all the earth. They are not annexed to us by parchments and seals. They are created in us by the decrees of Providence, which establish the laws of our nature. They are born with us, exist with us, and cannot be taken from us by any human power, without taking our lives. In short, they are founded on the immutable maxims of reason and justice." - John Dickinson (Signer of the Constitution of the U. S., as quoted in "Our Ageless Constitution," p. 286)
Unless today's citizens rediscover the ideas of liberty existing in what Jefferson called "the American mind" of 1776, we risk going back to the "Old World" ideas which preceded the "Miracle of America."
There are those who call themselves "progressives," when, in fact, their ideas are regressive and enslaving, and as old as the history of civilization.
Would suggest to any who wish an authentic history of the ideas underlying American's founding a visit to this web site, at which Richard Frothingham's outstanding 1872 "History of the Rise of the Republic of the United States" can be read on line.
This 600+-page history traces the ideas which gave birth to the American founding. Throughout, Richard Frothingham, the historian, develops the idea that it is "the Christian idea of man" which allowed the philosophy underlying the Declaration of Independence and Constitution to become a reality--an idea which recognizes the individual and the Source of his/her "Creator"-endowed life, liberty and law.
Is there any wonder that the enemies of freedom, the so-called "progressives," do not promote such authentic histories of America? Their philosophy puts something called "the state," or "global interests" as being superior to individuals and requires a political elitist group to decide what role individuals are to play.
In other words, they must turn the Founders' ideas upside-down in order to achieve a common mediocrity for individuals and power for themselves.
"Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court even can do much to help it." - Judge Learned Hand
That system cannot work within the confines of a national public school system such as the one we have now in the US. We could argue the merits of this system but I imagine we’d find ourselves on the same side.
My point is that as it stands, the public school system cannot support any religious education. It must be left to private schools, churches and parents. If the nature of one’s employment (active duty military, for example) requires residence in a region dominated by a different religion, should one’s children be educated in that religion? I don’t want my children taught that transsubstantiation is false in school, as I’m sure a Lutheran doesn’t want his or her children taught that it is true. So if I live in a region dominated by Lutherans or Satanists or atheists, I appreciate public schools allowing me to control my children’s theological education, as those of other faiths (or lacks thereof) appreciate the same freedom.
This is what I believe the establishment clause provides. I believe it is worth not only respecting, but also fighting for, as is the rest of the bill of rights.
The establishment clause provides against the congress establishing religious ed curriculum. It has nothing to do with parents establishing the same.
If the parents do not allow diversity in religion ed, then I understand that it might get unpleasant, but even then it would have nothing against the establishment clause.
Of course, American reality is such that if we were free people, we would configure the religious ed pretty much like we configure sports or other electives: the parents get to choose and the parents have to fund their choices.
Welcome to FR. Great screen name.
No Catholic is bound by Dignitatis Humanae, because it is not a document that binds. It is full of philosophical errors, and it will need to be corrected by a future Pope or Council.
Thanks for the welcome and hospitality.
I do like the idea of parent-funded elective religious education. It could be a much more affordable and flexible alternative to private religious schools.
It seems to me that for safety’s sake, we ought not allow any taxpayer-funded religious education regardless of the source. While congress may not create the curriculum, its existence in public schools would construe government approval.
It might be construed so ignorantly. There is indeed that mental virus: that whatever happens publicly happens by government approval. This attitude cannot be eradicated by education reform, which pursues a much simpler goal of replacing the useless system that we have with an education that is available regardless of income, is controlled in essential part by the parents who are primary educators, and is in full accordance with the Constitution. There is absolutely no legal or logical reason why school kids can play football, or baseball, or run track, or play drums, but they cannot learn what is truly necessary for their future lives: how to be good, moral and knowledgeable Catholics, Lutherans, Jews or Atheists.
It isn’t an establishment of religion ... because it doesn’t establish a religion.
Endorsement of majority religious values is not an establishment of religion, and should not be unconstitutional. Forcing majority values on the minority is establishment, and unconstitutional. And, for what its worth, that means forcing them to abide by the majority religion ... not simply forcing them to hear of its existence.
Religious minorities are far too intolerant of the majority.
The line between moral values and religious teachings is a thin and blurry one. This is not a bad thing, considering how much we all actually agree on. Endorsement may not be establishment, public schools may not be congress, but our protection from the tyranny of the majority relies on sticking to basics. This country could be majority anything, and a strict reading of the establishment clause keeps us all safe in case of a Muslim majority, or Mormon or atheist. After school programs are fine, but any moral instruction during class time must be kept free of any religious trappings or bent. That is what makes this country strong, and will keep this country strong regardless of what happens in the future. We know that we have the freedom to teach our children what we think is best, and in order to preserve that freedom we must allow those who don’t agree with us the same.
Would America be a nicer place to live if everyone happened to follow Christ? Probably, but it’s not worth giving up the right to free thought and belief in order to make that so.
The constitution makes no mention of sports or music. People who are paid by the government are in fact subject to its approval while on the clock. Institutions created by the government are in fact subject to its approval. Again, allowing the content of moral instruction to be dictated by a local majority or by a loud local minority infringes on the rights of anyone who does not belong to said group. Moral instruction is a good thing, but by injecting religious language we risk establishment. As I posted above, endorsement may not be establishment, but we don’t really need the government endorsing religions either, constitutional or not.
31 Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed;32 And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.33 They answered him, We be Abraham's seed, and were never in bondage to any man: how sayest thou, Ye shall be made free?34 Jesus answered them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin.35 And the servant abideth not in the house for ever: but the Son abideth ever.36 If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.
Sin is the ultimate tyranny from which all other tyranny and oppression arises. Believe on Jesus and continue in his word. Be free indeed.
"Freedom of religion" was created for a specifically Protestant context in which the basics were universally assumed (and therefore public) while various other matters were a matter of denominational disagreement (and therefore private). Minus this Protestant context, "freedom of religion" doesn't work.
The greatest contradiction of "freedom of religion," especially when espoused by people who object to abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia, etc., is that it enshrines as a "right" the greatest sin of all: the right to commit idolatry.
All this (in my opinion) stems from chrstianity's transformation of religion from statute to an "offer of salvation." If G-d is making an "offer," naturally one is free to refuse. If there is no "offer of salvation," if G-d has only laws and statutes which He commands us to obey, then this problem ceases to exist.
Tyranny of the minority — particularly the oversensitive minority — is no better than tyranny of the majority. Manger scenes, Christmas plays and mentions of faith in schools do not affect the freedom of thought, or of teaching your children what is best.
Through the banishment of any mention of the majority faith in schools, the current liberal ‘reading of the establishment clause’ has created a country that has handed control of public space to an atheist minority ... rather than keeping us safe from a potential atheist majority, as you say it would.
Neither of the school curriculum in general. Yes, a government employee (teachers really aren't that, but I get your overall point) can teach religion, and certainly the principal can invite a priest, a pastor or a rabbi to teach in the government school without putting them on government payroll. What a government employee cannot do is under an act of Congress establish a religion. That is all.
we dont really need the government endorsing religions either
Sure we do. The early state constitutions not only endorsed, they established religion. Today we would be far better if traditional religions of the United States: Christianity and perhaps Judaism be given preference, and the other religions and pseudo religions were treated as artifacts of culture and entertainment, like the sports and the circuses.