Championing Religious Freedom: ‘We Must Preserve Our Unity’ Going Beyond Political Disputes

Princeton scholar Robert George told a Religious Freedom Institute gathering, ‘We do everything we can, within reason, to enable men and women of goodwill of every tradition of faith and shade of belief to pursue the spiritual quest and honor their consciences…’

Lauren Green of Fox News and RFI President Eric Patterson pose with Professor Robert George just after he received the 2023 Defender of Religious Freedom Award.
Lauren Green of Fox News and RFI President Eric Patterson pose with Professor Robert George just after he received the 2023 Defender of Religious Freedom Award. (photo: Courtesy photo / RFI )

Editor's Note: The Religious Freedom Institute honored Professor Robert George of Princeton University with its 2023 Defender of Religious Freedom Award Nov. 2. Below are his remarks published in full, with his permission.

Beloved friends; fellow warriors for religious freedom:

Let me begin by thanking Eric, Tom Farr, and the entire Religious Freedom Institute team, not only for this high honor, which I deeply appreciate, but also, and above all, for your valiant, tireless work in defense of religious liberty, and in support of those at home and abroad whose religious freedom is violated or threatened.

It has been my privilege, and my joy, to work alongside you, arm-in-arm, when the winds were favorable, and when they were decidedly unfavorable, to uphold the dignity of each and every member of the human family as a precious child of God, called by Him to seek the truth about the things of the spirit, and to order his or her life in line with his or her best judgments of conscience. We are indeed warriors for this cause, but we are the happiest of happy warriors, serene in the knowledge that we are contending for the highest and best of causes, precisely because we are fighting for the dignity and flourishing of our brothers and sisters of every faith and shade of belief.

We come from many traditions. We are Christians, Jews, Muslims, and people of other faiths. We are united in recognizing the importance — indeed the centrality — of spiritual concerns, and of the spiritual life, and in the recognition that the flourishing of authentic faith requires religious freedom.

And we are further united in understanding that one’s faith pertains to the whole of one’s life — it is not something contained in a separate or discrete segment of one’s life. Therefore we affirm, indeed we insist on, a broad and robust vision of religious freedom—not the mere right to worship, as if religion were a purely private matter to be confined to home or church, synagogue, or mosque, but the right to the free exercise of religion, including the right to bring our religiously inspired convictions into the public square to serve those in need of our support, care, and assistance and to advocate for causes in which we believe. 

We insist on the right to shape and run our institutions — be they schools, hospitals, food pantries, shelters, adoption agencies, rehab centers, or what have you — in line with the tenets of our faiths, and we further insist on our right as free and equal citizens to engage in advocacy on terms of equality with our fellow citizens in the formal and informal forums of deliberative democracy. Rights we claim for ourselves, we also uphold and defend for others. We ask for no special treatment, only equality under the law and respect for the rights enshrined in our Constitution and laws.

No one here tonight needs me to tell you that we are gathered at a fraught time for our nation … for the world … and for the cause of religious freedom. The October 7th terrorist attack in Israel on innocent men, women, and children, on elderly people and babies, shocked and appalled us all. Questions of the legitimate response to the attack divide decent people. No one in our coalition — no, we are not a mere coalition, our unity at the deepest level of moral principle makes us something more like a family — no one in our family supports terrorism. All of us, irrespective of our views of Middle East politics and our beliefs about what a just settlement of the Israel-Palestine dispute would be, condemn what was done to innocent people on October 7th. All of us hold that in responding to those atrocities, the just war principles of non-combatant immunity, discrimination, and proportionality must be strictly observed. All of us condemn anti-Jewish hatred in any and all forms. All of us equally condemn anti-Muslim prejudice, the casting of blame on Muslims as a group, and, indeed, the slander that Islam is inherently anti-Semitic or terroristic.

Our movement has always been one in which Christians, Jews, and Muslims, along with people of the great Eastern traditions of faith, are partners and, indeed, equal partners. We must preserve our unity. We will not agree on all matters of politics, including the politics of the Middle East, but our profound points of moral agreement — the points I just mentioned — must be the glue that binds us in solidarity with each other despite our points of disagreement. Where we differ, we must engage each other in a spirit of openness — willing thoughtfully to listen to each other and not simply to preach. However passionate we may be in our advocacy, we must cultivate and sustain a spirit of humility and eschew dogmatism. We must not doubt one another’s goodwill or question each other’s motives. The enemies of religious freedom would like nothing more than for political disputes to shatter our unity, thus undermining our work at home and abroad in upholding religious freedom for all. Let us see to it that their wishes are frustrated.

Our confessional pluralism is a source of our strength, not only increasing our numbers but also giving us multiple traditions of wisdom from which to draw. Another strength of our movement is that we do not require (nor have we ever required) for membership in good standing that anyone hold to any one particular theory of religious liberty. It is, however, nonetheless fair to say, I think, that the overwhelming majority of people in our movement reject the idea that the fundamental ground for respecting religious freedom is to be found in a modus vivendi or some kind of social contract or mutual non-aggression pact, in which we all agree not to coerce others in matters of religion in return for a promise from others not to coerce us. This very thin theory of the moral grounds of religious liberty has a distinguished pedigree among liberal political philosophers, but it fails to capture the fundamental concerns and motivating spirit of people associated with the Religious Freedom Institute and others, such as our friends at Becket Law, the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the American Center for Law and Justice, First Liberty,  the Coalition for Virtue, Heritage, and Covenant Law, and the Jewish Coalition for Religious Liberty, who are in the forefront of defending and advancing religious freedom today. 

For us, at the foundation of our thinking about religious freedom is the dignity of the human person, the importance of the spiritual quest, and the value of the spiritual life. We defend the rights of conscience not, or not simply, to preserve social peace, but so that people can, consistently with their dignity and with their obligations as rational creatures, pursue the truth about spiritual matters, and lead lives of authenticity and integrity in line with their best judgments as to such matters.

This is why we fight abroad for the rights of Uyghur Muslims, Falun Gong, and Tibetan Buddhists who are persecuted by the communist regime in China; Rohinga Muslims in Myanmar; Ahmadiyya Muslims in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia; Christians in many different lands; Jews; Bahai’s; Zoroastrians; Yazidis; even atheists. We defend those persecuted for their beliefs in religious matters, irrespective of the content of those beliefs. We oppose all coercion in religion, for God desires to be worshiped freely; authentic faith cannot be forced or faked; and the dignity of the human person demands that he be afforded the full freedom to assent or withhold assent in matters of faith and the practice of faith in accordance with his own honest judgments.

And here at home, we stand up for the rights of the Evangelical Christian baker or wedding planner threatened with legal sanctions for honoring his or her conscientious belief in marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife; for the Catholic foster care or adoption ministry threatened with exclusion for honoring its conscientious belief that children should be placed in homes with a mom and a dad; for the synagogue that simply wishes to be treated in a non-discriminatory basis in the application of COVID policies; for the religious sisters who in selflessly carrying out their compassionate works of mercy wish to avoid complicity in abortion; for the Muslim police officer and the Sikh military officer who simply wish, in line with their religious duties, to wear neatly trimmed short beards; and for the Native American Indian tribe whose burial ground or other sacred sites are bulldozed for such purposes as making a turning lane on a highway. We do everything we can, within reason, to enable men and women of goodwill of every tradition of faith and shade of belief to pursue the spiritual quest and honor their consciences, so long as their practices are consistent with the basic requirements of public order and respectful of the rights of others.

Someone might ask: But can’t we stand up for religious liberty without getting ourselves mired in “culture war” issues such as abortion or marriage? The answer, to be blunt, is no. No, we cannot. We will not. We do not seek out such conflicts, but we will — we must — stand up for what we believe in, both on the substance of such issues and in defense of the freedom of those whose rights others would trample in the pursuit of their culture-war goals. We will not play for applause, or make things easy for ourselves, by standing up only for causes that do not offend the ideological sensibilities of those controlling the levers of culture power, be they in government, law, journalism, education, the arts, philanthropy, or business. We will fight for the Sikh military officer AND for the Christian baker; we sill stand up for the Consolidated Native Tribes of Grand Ronde AND for the Little Sisters of the Poor. Our adversaries can denounce us, libel us, call us names, but we will not give up and we will not give in. “With firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right,” we will “strive to finish the work we are in” — no matter how hard it is; no matter what sacrifices we are asked to make, no matter how long it takes.

And with God's help, we SHALL overcome.

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