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As religious liberty loses ground at home and abroad, scholars rally support for an embattled freedom.
BY JOAN FRAWLEY DESMOND
WASHINGTON — When the Berlin Wall fell, Church leaders anticipated a new springtime for religious liberty. But this fundamental right is under attack at home and abroad, prompting a slew of scholarly initiatives designed to educate the public and build support for the “first freedom.”
This month, Evangelicals and Catholics Together, an 18-year ecumenical initiative designed to identify common theological beliefs and forge joint public witness, published “In Defense of Religious Freedom” in the March issue of First Things, the influential journal of religion and public affairs.
Meanwhile, academic forums like the Berkley Center’s Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University draw scholars, policymakers and journalists to high-level debates on a range of topics, from President Barack Obama’s contraception mandate to the plight of religious minorities in the wake of the 2011 “Arab Spring” uprisings.
“In the West, certain religious beliefs are now regarded as bigoted. Pastors are under threat, both cultural and legal, for preaching biblical truth. Christian social service and charitable agencies are forced to cease cooperation with the state because they will not bend their work to what Pope Benedict XVI has called the ‘dictatorship of relativism,’” noted the statement “In Defense of Religious Freedom.”
While persecution of religious minorities abroad has received increasing attention, the statement’s authors suggest that intolerance of faith-inspired public activity in the West is more accepted — at least in elite circles. Today, March 9, The New York Times published a full-page advertisement paid for by the Freedom From Religion Foundation that attacked the Catholic Church for a host of social and economic problems across the globe.
“Proponents of human rights, including governments, have begun to define religious freedom down, reducing it to a bare ‘freedom of worship.’ This reduction denies the inherently public character of biblical religion and privatizes the very idea of religious freedom, a view of freedom such as one finds in those repressive states where Christians can pray only so long as they do so behind closed doors.”
“It is no exaggeration to see in these developments a movement to drive religious belief, and especially orthodox Christian religious and moral convictions, out of public life,” the statement charges.
‘Made in the Image of God’
Evangelicals and Catholics Together is an ecumenical fellowship established by the late Father Richard John Neuhaus, the founding editor of First Things, and Charles “Chuck” Colson, the Watergate figure and Christian convert who founded Prison Ministries, a nationwide outreach program to prison inmates.
“In Defense of Religious Freedom” provides relatively brief but powerful reflections on the biblical basis for religious freedom, backed up with doctrinal statements from the Catholic Church and evangelical organizations.
“In Genesis 1:26, the Bible teaches us that only human beings are made ‘in the image of God.’ No one bears this image (imago Dei) more than others; no one has the right to assert that by reason of race, tribe, ethnicity, class or sex his imaging of God is superior to another,” reads the statement.
“In a world of manifest and innumerable inequalities, this radical equality of all men and women before God is the bond that allows us to speak meaningfully of a human family, a human race, in which we share mutual obligations — including the obligation to recognize and honor that sanctuary of conscience in which each person can meet the divine source of life.
“Any power, be it cultural or political, that puts unwarranted impediments in the path of the human quest for truth, which culminates in the human quest for God, is violating the order of creation.”
Indeed, the statement asserts that our first freedom “reflects God’s design for creation and his pattern of redemption. Religious freedom is thus grounded in the character of God, as revealed in the Bible and in the moral structure of the world that we can know through reason. It is precisely as evangelical and Catholic Christians that we affirm, on the authority of the Bible, religious freedom for all, even as we are prepared to defend religious freedom in public life through arguments drawn from reason.”
During the 20th century, some advocates for social justice set aside state-sanctioned violations of religious freedom and conscience rights, ostensibly for the sake of securing an economic or social good. Fidel Castro’s Cuba, for example, has been lauded for improving health-care services, and Castro’s supporters in the West have shrugged off his suppression of basic freedoms.
In contrast, the statement argues that respect for religious freedom is a pre-condition for a “just state,” one that “recognizes the limits of its own capacity: It cannot coerce consciences; it cannot compel belief.”
Two Years in the Making
Work on the statement began two years ago, as members of the ecumenical group became increasingly concerned about the First Amendment threat posed by legal same-sex “marriage” and the weakening of conscience protections for health-care providers.
“Catholics and evangelicals constitute the two largest religious groupings in North America. Though we practice an ecumenism of conviction, not one of accommodation (not just papering over our differences), we realize more and more that we share in common a core spiritual fellowship,” said Timothy George, a primary author of the document who noted that the group has released previous statements on contentious theological issues like the relationship between Scripture and tradition, the nature of justification, and the role of Mary in the Church.
The dean of Beeson Divinity School and a professor of church history and doctrine, George also serves as executive editor for Christianity Today/i>.
Recently, Colson and George wrote an open letter to evangelicals, urging them to join with Catholics against an “unjust mandate that violates our first freedom as Americans.”
“Both evangelicals and Catholics are fully convinced that religious liberty is a pre-political right which must be respected by the state,” noted Father Thomas Guarino of Seton Hall University in New Jersey, who played a major role in forging the statement. “We argue our case on the basis of both biblical and philosophical warrants. For we are convinced that both faith and reason testify to the foundational importance of religious liberty.”
During a March 1 conference on religious freedom at Georgetown’s Berkley Center, Robert George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and a signer of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together statement, offered a strong, reason-based defense of religious freedom as constitutive to human flourishing.
The conference was organized around a new book, Religious Freedom: Why Now? Defending an Embattled Human Right, by Tim Shah, an associate director of the Religious Freedom Project.
Most conference panelists agreed with the broad outlines of George’s defense of conscience rights as an essential human good, but they contested the nature and scope of the threat posed by the contraception mandate, as Austin Ruse reported in a March 9 post on The Catholic Thing website.
Thomas Farr, the director of the Berkley Center’s Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown, noted that “significant moral and political confusion remains about the legal status and civic role of religious liberty in our society — confusion which can only be addressed over the long term by a sustained, concerted, respectful but clear articulation of its meaning and importance in American life.”
Such reasoned debate is likely to be in short supply as scholarly arguments migrate from the academy to the campaign trail and media talk shows. Meanwhile, many voters will shrug off commentary on religious freedom as an unnecessary digression from more central political concerns.
But scholars who have followed the steady effort within the academy to redefine the first freedom as a “freedom to worship,” rather than a broadly protected right to engage in a range of faith-inspired speech and activities, know better.
“Ideas have consequences,” as Richard Weaver famously observed, and public policy will reflect efforts to marginalize religious witness.
“We knew that contemporary, liberal legal scholars were thinking about narrowing our constitutional protections of religious liberty,” said R.R. “Rusty” Reno, the editor in chief of First Things, who helped with the Evangelicals and Catholics Together statement. ”It turns out that this tendency now influences the Obama administration, which has adopted a very narrow view of what counts as a religious organization fully protected by the Constitution.”
Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.