Affirmation of America’s First Freedoms Begins At Home

COMMENTARY: Fostering a proper understanding of religious liberty figures heavily, and it’s an urgent priority for Americans — especially for our children.

The Liberty Bell
The Liberty Bell (photo: Luca Nebuloni, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons)

The Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, which amounted to an assault on the Constitution, is cause for reaffirming those bedrock principles that define the United States of America. Let’s take a moment to discuss America’s first freedom: religious freedom. 

And we need to start by addressing a particular problem — that of education. We must teach our children about the critical role of religion and religious freedom. It’s an urgent priority because, unfortunately, passing on a solid respect for religious freedom — in addition to a host of other values — has taken a backseat to more popular ideologies in our schools. The result: high schools, colleges, and universities, which together educate 40 million students each year, have overwhelmingly failed to teach the true meaning and value of religious freedom.

Something has got to change. As a Catholic mother, I’m keenly aware of my right and responsibility as primary educator of my children. Particularly as I’ve been lucky enough to have 10 of them. 

I also know that I can’t teach everything that matters without help. But where do I find it? Enter the Religious Freedom Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom Education. Remember that name (or at least make a note of it).

It is bringing together students, teachers, professors and administrators to provide rigorous and engaging programs and materials to restore a proper understanding of religious freedom. It has put together a wonderful five-lesson unit of study to supplement junior and senior-level high school instruction in private, homeschool, and public school settings called the America’s First Freedom Curriculum (AFFC) — available online here

The AFFC curriculum examines religious freedom as it relates to anthropology, U.S. history, world religions, politics and law, and the advancement of peace and human rights around the world. 

I introduced some of my older children to the AFFC curriculum in the remaining days of their winter break. Here are some of the thoughtful answers the curriculum gives to crucial questions: 

How is religious freedom rooted in human nature? 

By our nature we desire to know the truth about an order of reality and meaning that is greater than ourselves. Our consciences orient our lives to truth once it is realized. Repressing religion and its free exercise or coercing anyone to abandon the dictates of conscience is an affront to the essence of the human person. 

What did the founders mean by ‘religious freedom’? 

The Founders overcame differences of religion and ideology and set forth constitutional guarantees for the religious freedom of everyone. Their action represents the most significant legal expression of religious freedom the world had ever known, and it is rightly considered a watershed moment in human history. 

What moral or religious cases can be made for religious freedom? 

There are two moral and religious arguments that support religious freedom. The moral argument begins with the question of how the dignity of the human person requires religious freedom. Adherents to the three main monotheistic different religious traditions — Christianity, Islam, and Judaism — can draw on their own sacred sources to make explicitly religious arguments for religious freedom.

Are there political reasons to support religious freedom?

Religious freedom contributes to societies by informing the establishment of laws, empowering civil societies to support the common good, and affirming the equal dignity of every person despite deep and important differences.

Is religious freedom solely an American ideal? 

Despite the foundational role of religious freedom in advancing peace, security and human rights, there remains much to be done to end the pervasive repression of religion worldwide. U.S. leadership in advancing the cause of international religious freedom not only allows individuals to flourish but also is sound foreign policy. 

After one AFFC review session in the dining room, I asked the kids to write down their impressions. One teenage son wrote: “Well, I think it’s great how this brings attention to a sometimes overlooked but incredible human right. It’s easy to overlook religious intolerance and persecution, especially in other countries. But this is quite dangerous. We need to remember what is for the betterment of society, both at home and abroad.”

My teen daughter wrote: “All Americans should continue to have freedom of religion. Every home should have the right to practice what they believe.” Not to be outdone, her pre-teen sister chimed in: “I am so happy with all that our country allows every religion to exist here without fear of persecution. Sure, there will be people who try to change our convictions, but we will thrive when we are allowed to keep our faith.” 

Their responses are incredibly consoling. During a time of such unrest and instability, young Americans like my children are not jaded about the country or about the importance of faith. And, lest you think my kids are unusually solemn, let me assure that after our little seminar they went straight back to watching their favorite TV show.

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