Noted Catholic scholar Robert George said that comprehensive respect for conscience rights and religious freedom is important because of the role they play in structuring society and shaping the fundamental actions of people said May 24.

“The full defense of any particular liberty, including the freedom of religion, requires the identification and defense of the human goods, the basic aspects of human well-being and fulfillment, that liberty secures or protects or advances,” he said.

George explained that people should avoid appealing to abstract rights with no foundation in pursuing the things they want. Rather, they should recognize that true rights have a moral basis, which connects them to human goods that lead to man’s flourishing.

One critical condition for religious liberty to exist, he said, is the right to act not only privately in church or at home, but also the right “to bring one’s religiously informed moral judgments into the public square, to compete on fair terms of engagement with the range of other religious and non-religious views” that share the goal of advancing the common good.

George, who is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, spoke at the 2012 National Religious Freedom Conference on May 24.

The one-day conference was sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center's American Religious Freedom Program and was held at the Georgetown Four Seasons Hotel in Washington.

In his address, George contrasted two views of liberty promoted by prominent English intellectuals. He observed differences in these two viewpoints based on their understanding of the human person.

For utilitarian John Stuart Mill, the obligation to respect liberty is grounded in utility, determined by the net “social benefit” that is produced, he said. Mill viewed man as a “progressive being” who would flourish if left alone, George explained. This belief that human beings are naturally inclined solely towards good fails to take into account the Christian idea of original sin and leads to “naive optimism.”

George argued that a “profoundly superior” account of religious freedom is offered by Cardinal John Henry Newman. Rather than a utilitarian perspective, Cardinal Newman was driven by “concern for human excellence and human flourishing.” Contrary to Mill, the cardinal had an understanding of fallen human nature that aligns with Christian teaching, George said. Therefore, he was “spared naive optimism and faith in human progress,” understanding that man must restrain some of his inclinations in order to truly thrive. He observed that Cardinal Newman’s promotion of freedom of conscience for all was rooted in an understanding that “conscience has rights because it has duties.”

Cardinal Newman realized that conscience is not merely “self will” or autonomy to do whatever one wants, based on a relativistic definition of life and founded on mere emotion. Instead, consciences are informed by both faith and reason, acting as “a stern monitor” in issuing duties to individuals.

George explained that people should have the right to follow their consciences, not because people should be free to do whatever they wish, but because they “have a duty to follow their consciences,” even when they do not wish to do so.

The Princeton professor stated that understanding this connection between the rights and duties of conscience is essential in defending religious freedom not as a luxury in a free society, but as a crucial element in human decision-making and social structure.

He argued that religious liberty is rightly termed our “first freedom,” not only because it is listed first in the American Bill of Rights, but because it protects an “intrinsic” aspect of our integral flourishing as human beings.

Conscience is critical because it not only deals with beliefs about eternity, but also “shapes our activities and choices,” giving direction and coherency to our everyday actions, he said.

In addition, he noted that religion plays a key role in society as a “buffer” from the state, providing an important safeguard against tyranny and serves the common good.

George, who also serves on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, observed that basic liberties such as freedom of speech, religion and assembly are all connected. Regimes that respect one of these liberties tend to respect them all, he said, while those that abandon one of these freedoms ultimately tend to allow the others to erode as well.

Because conscience plays such a critical role in human life and society, those who value freedom must adamantly reject attacks on religious liberty, he said, “especially when these threats come from overreaching government.”