27 June 2012

Half Way through the Fortnight: What is Religious Freedom?

27 JUNE 2012. Today, the feast day of Saint Cyril of Alexandria, the Church in the United States reaches the halfway point of the U.S. Bishops' Fortnight for Freedom campaign. At this point in the journey, it seems an important question to examine what religious freedom is. I believe that it is in the definition of religious freedom, and religion itself, that our religious freedom is being most threatened.

Religious freedom is the ability to exercise one's faith in public and in private without government sponsored or government's direct coercion. It is the ability to live one's life in accord with one's faith and in accord with one's conscience that has been formed by that faith. Indeed, the Church has said that if one has no faith at all, government must not use its coercive power to require one to profess a faith. But, how can this work in a pluralistic society such as the United States, which is comprised of so many faiths and such a diversity of cultures and backgrounds?

The answer lies, in part, in the law's approach to freedom of speech. The courts, in interpreting the First Amendment in its guaranty of free speech, have generally worked from the premise that the marketplace of ideas must be allowed to operate, and that marketplace will ultimately and should utltimately determine the value of speech and its propogation or not--not government limitation on speech. There are, of course, exeptions to the rule, such as speech that poses a direct danger and can do harm to others (yelling "Fire." in a darkened theater) or speech that is clearly contrary to community norms of decency (such as obsenity). But generally the marketplace of ideas should be allowed to operate, so goes the jurisprudential theory, so that each idea, even if in the tiniest minority of the marketplace, can live or die on the merit the marketplace gives it. This protects minority interests. It ensures those of the minority view have the opportunity to inject their thoughts into the marketplace.

On the contrary, the courts and legislatures have for decades been working to free another minority--who wants no influence from religion whatsoever--from faith's shadow. The U.S. Supreme Court's interpretation of the Establishment Clause has been particularly damaging in this area. The marketplace of faith is not permitted to function. Instead, the minority has pushed, and the courts and legislatures have been complicit in the effort, to remove altogether the interaction of religion with the marketplace of ideas. That minority uses the law as a sword to prevent the most basic of religious expression from entering the marketplace. In many contexts, prayer is illegal. Under this approach, the minority becomes the tyrant. And, it is that tyranical march that has been pushed, ever with more ferver in the last 30 or more years, to exclude the minority's expression of faith from many aspects of contemporary life in the United States. And, they march on.

Coupled with this tyranny of the minority--with one leading the other or, at least, the two acting in concert--the popular culture has developed the idea that religious belief is a merely personal, private endeavor that has no place in one's workplace, school, or the public square. This idea, supporting the evolution of the law, is closing the noose around religious freedom and around the ability of individuals to freely live in accord with their conscience formed by their faith. Where religion is defined as being purely private, then is can be given no regard in one's public life.

This is, at its core, the approach that the HHS Mandate takes and why a true exemption to provide meaningful conscience protection is being fought so by the Obama administration. The administration seeks to further push religion into the private and individual sphere, which necessitates that it be given no space in public policy, in the workplace, in schools, in the law. Then, of course, religious truth can be ignored as a private endeavor and all that is necessary to control public life is the ability to garner and wield political power. It is brute political force that controls, and President Obama resides in the White House.

This is exactly the message that Mr. Obama brought to the University of Notre Dame, as he was honored by a Catholic University that ought to have known better. He said: our disagreement should be respectful, but I am in charge and it is my view that will control.

This is the true threat to religious freedom, and the reason that the Fortnight for Freedom campaign is so important, if only to push faith into the marketplace and public discourse.

Truth is not a private matter. All faiths that seek the truth must be permitted their place in the marketplace, indeed to the extent they are minorities in that marketplace, their point of market entry must be protected by law. If political speech of any stripe is given the highest protection by law in our country--where politics is nothing more than a common scramble to satisfy unlimited desires with limited means, and, so, the garnering of political power at the expense of others is the ultimate aim--certainly, the faithful search for truth through religious conviction and exercise, and the freedom of everyone to live in accord with that faithful search, must be given all the greater protection.

NOVUS (29.VI.2012 9:01 a.m.):

Given our country's preoccupation with the law and the courts in these recent days following the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling upholding the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, it would be important to consider the U.S. Bishop's statement on the ruling. The Bishops urge Congress to fix the three significant flaws in the health care overhaul law, namely: no funding of abortion with tax dollars, directly or indirectly; the necessity of a proper and meaningful conscience protection provision that preserves religious freedom; and the fair treatment of immigrant workers so that they are not prohibited from purchasing health care coverage, which "undermines the [a]ct's stated goal of promoting access to basic life-affirming health care for everyone, especially those most in need."


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