The importance of religious liberty

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President’s Day: Feb. 20, 2012
Acts 5:27-32, 40-42; Ps 2; Matt 22:15-21

Today our country celebrates the birthday of its first President, George Washington. And Washington is hard to pin down, religiously. (What follows is summarized from Stephen Waldman, Founding Faith, especially chap. 6 and 7.) He certainly manifested faith in God in his words and actions; he was comfortable speaking of faith in general terms, and in encouraging others to pray for help or in thanksgiving; and he considered religious devotion something valuable in citizens in a republic.

And yet it is hard to identify Washington as a strong Christian, since his religious practice was spotty and he declined to enter into thinking or disputing about theological doctrine. We cannot call him a Deist, since he certainly believed that God intervened in events in his life, including his military battles. And he was definitely not a secularist, seeking to push religion out of the public square.

One thing that is distinctive about Washington is his support for religious liberty. And we as Catholics can especially appreciate this. At the time, most kinds of Protestants had a very negative attitude toward Catholicism. The Catholics of Maryland, after establishing religious liberty by the Toleration Act in 1649, then lost it a few decades later and suffered under strong restrictions on the practice of their faith for all of the 1700s, leading up to the American Revolution. In the midst of that struggle for independence, Washington wanted to make it clear that Catholics could expect that they would be truly welcomed and would flourish in an independent United States. He ordered the soldiers of the Continental Army to cease their annual practice of burning an effigy of the Pope, and enforced this. To be sure, he saw this as a way of gaining important political and military allies in the Revolutionary War. But it was not only a tactic. Washington stands out as someone who really believed in religious liberty. During the war, he wrote to one of his generals:

While we are contending for our own Liberty, we should be very cautious of violating the Rights of Conscience in others, ever considering that God alone is the Judge of the Hearts of men, and to him only in this Case, they are answerable. (Waldman, p. 65)

Very like this view of Washington’s, the Second Vatican Council taught us (Dignitatis humanae, 2) that

all men [are] at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth. However, men cannot discharge these obligations in a manner in keeping with their own nature unless they enjoy immunity from external coercion as well as psychological freedom.

And thus it argues that all governments need to allow religious liberty, based upon human nature—so that all people can fulfill this duty given to them by God: to seek him; to seek the truth about him and themselves; and then to live out the truth that they believe they have found. And this living out is an essential part of religious liberty, as the Council emphasized especially to the Communist governments of its time: not only a freedom to believe something behind walls and locked doors, and there to engage in prayer and worship; but to be free to live out those religious beliefs in all areas of their lives.

This teaching of the Council is consistent with what we heard from our Lord Jesus today. For, yes, there are things that belong to Caesar: the government has an appropriate role, and we have appropriate duties toward the government. And in Christ’s words it is clear that there are things that do not belong to Caesar and never will, but that belong only to God.

It has never pleased any form of Caesar to hear these words; and yet we seek to live out this teaching. We heard, in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, how from the very beginning the apostles, when ordered to cease speaking and living out their faith in Christ, responded, “We must obey God rather than men.” And we too continue to teach this truth and live it out.

Religious liberty is an important, current topic that our bishop and the bishops of Maryland have spoken about in recent months. They have published a Statement on the importance of religious liberty in our country and even right here in Maryland. And they identify different restrictions that they see arising, that we need to be warned about:

  • restrictions against health care institutions and employees being able to live according to their conscience;
  • restrictions upon the freedoms of different individuals and businesses, after same-sex marriage laws are passed;
  • and, right now, the mandate from the Department of Health and Human Services, related to national health care.

The HHS mandate advances a new, unusually restrictive view of religious liberty; and we find that the Administration has been advancing this on several fronts. As I have read, I have seen that it is advancing this view in several different areas of law, very consistently: consistently, and wrongly. For it is moving the line that marked off where the government needed to stop, in allowing us to live out freedom of religion. Even the language is changing: from “freedom of religion” to merely “freedom of worship.” It seeks to establish a very strong division between a narrow area in which we are free to worship and teach the faith and seek to convert others, free from government interference; and any other activity, in which we are not. The moment that anyone is motivated by their faith to reach across that wall, to do anything beyond that narrow area of protection, to reach out in education, or acts of charity and service, or in healthcare—then that freedom ends, and that person, we ourselves, are subject to any rules that the government chooses to impose, even when these violate our religious beliefs and our conscience.

As citizens in a democracy, we have the chance to speak up for religious liberty. Religious liberty has characterized the United States since its beginning as an independent country. We have seen that this was the view of the President whose birthday we celebrate today. Like him, we need to speak to our fellow citizens and to our government officials—asking them, like George Washington:

  • to value the place of religion in American life;
  • to put in place protections for conscience;
  • to make our public square a place where people of all religions can flourish.

To protect this freedom that the Second Vatican Council identified as rooted in human nature—so that we are free to seek the truth about God and to live out that truth. So that we are free to do what our Lord Jesus taught us, to repay to God what belongs to God.


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