Our First Right: Religious LibertyARCHBISHOP CHARLES J. CHAPUT, O.F.M. CAP.
The following remarks by Archbishop Charles Chaput were submitted to the United States Commission on Civil Rights.
I also served for three years as a commissioner with the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. That experience confirmed for me the unique role that religious faith, religious believers, and religious communities play in genuine human development. It also taught me the importance of religious liberty both abroad and in our own country.
Simply put, religious freedom is a fundamental natural right and first among our civil liberties. And I believe this fact is borne out by the priority protection it specifically enjoys, along with freedom of expression, in the Constitution's First Amendment.
I'd like to make four brief points.
To put it another way: At the heart of the American model of public life is an essentially religious vision of man, government, and God. This model has given us a free, open, and non-sectarian society marked by an astonishing variety of cultural and religious expressions. But our system's success does not result from the procedural mechanisms our Founders put in place. Our system works precisely because of the moral assumptions that undergird it. And those moral assumptions have a religious grounding.
When the Founders talked about religion, they meant something much more demanding than a vague "spirituality." The distinguished legal scholar Harold Berman showed that the Founders — though they had differing views about religious faith among themselves — understood religion positively as "both belief in God and belief in an after-life of reward for virtue, and punishment for sin." In other words, religion mattered — personally and socially. It was more than a private preference. It made people live differently and live better. And therefore people's faith was assumed to have broad implications, including the social, economic, and political kind.
The Founders saw the value of publicly engaged religious faith because they inherited its legacy and experienced its formative influence themselves. They created a nation designed in advance to depend on the moral convictions of religious believers, and to welcome their active role in public life.
Hosanna-Tabor is not an isolated case. It belongs to a pattern of government coercion that includes the current administration's HHS mandate, which violates the religious identity and mission of many religiously affiliated or inspired public ministries; interfering with the conscience rights of medical providers, private employers, and individual citizens; and attacks on the policies, hiring practices, and tax statuses of religious charities and ministries.
Why is this hostility happening? I believe much of it links to Catholic and other religious teaching on the dignity of life and human sexuality. Catholic moral convictions about abortion, contraception, the purpose of sexuality, and the nature of marriage are rooted not just in revelation, but also in reason and natural law. Human beings have a nature that's not just the product of accident or culture, but inherent, universal, and rooted in permanent truths knowable to reason.
This understanding of the human person is the grounding of the entire American experiment. If human nature is not much more than modeling clay, and no permanent human nature exists by the hand of the Creator, then natural, unalienable rights obviously can't exist. And no human "rights" can finally claim priority over the interests of the state.
The problem, as law scholar Gerard Bradley points out, is that critics of religious faith tend to reduce all of these moral convictions to an expression of subjective beliefs. And if they're purely subjective beliefs, then — so the critics argue — they can't be rationally defended. And because they're rationally indefensible, they should be treated as a form of prejudice. In effect, two thousand years of moral experience, moral reasoning, and religious conviction become a species of bias. And arguing against same-sex "marriage" thus amounts to religiously blessed homophobia.
There's more, though. When religious belief is redefined downward to a kind of private bias, then the religious identity of institutional ministries has no public value — other than the utility of getting credulous people to do good things. So exempting Catholic adoption agencies, for example, from placing children with gay couples becomes a concession to private prejudice. And concessions to private prejudice feed bigotry and hurt the public. Or so the reasoning goes. This is how moral teaching and religious belief end up being branded as hate speech.
We ignore that unhappy fact at our own expense.
The Most Reverend Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap. "Our First Right: Religious Liberty." Public Discourse (March 25, 2013).
This article is reprinted and republished with the explicit permission of the Withersoon Institute. Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good is an online publication of the Witherspoon Institute that seeks to enhance the public understanding of the moral foundations of free societies by making the scholarship of the fellows and affiliated scholars of the Institute available and accessible to a general audience.
The Most Reverend Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap. is the ninth and current Archbishop of Philadelphia, serving since his installation on September 8, 2011. He previously served as Archbishop of Denver (1997-2011) and Bishop of Rapid City (1988-1997). As member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Tribe, Archbishop Chaput is the second Native American to be ordained bishop in the United States, and the first Native American archbishop. He is the author of the e-book, A Heart on Fire: Catholic Witness and the Next America, as well as Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life, and Living the Catholic Faith: Rediscovering the Basics.
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