Archbishop Chaput Reflects on Religious Freedom

Says Faith Has a Role in the Public Square

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry

DENVER, Colorado, SEPT. 15, 2003 ( The White House last month appointed Archbishop Charles Chaput president to a one-year term on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Here, the Denver archbishop shares some of his basic concerns.

Q: What is the role of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and how does it impact on the world?

Archbishop Chaput: Under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, the commission advises the U.S. State Department on global religious freedom issues, but it also has an autonomous voice. So it has two aspects.

On the one hand, it assists the State Department in making religious freedom an important part of U.S. foreign policy decisions. On the other hand, it independently identifies violations of religious freedom around the world, and it seeks to raise public awareness of those offending governments.

The commission holds hearings and issues an annual report that includes Countries of Particular Concern. No nation wants to be on that list. It also develops country-specific reports on challenges to religious freedom in places like Sudan or Vietnam. To the degree it can influence the White House, Congress and State Department, the commission can have quite an impact.

Q: Do you think that nations around the world really understand the concept of religious freedom?

Archbishop Chaput: No. The guarantee of religious freedom is beautifully stated in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but many countries simply ignore it or interpret it in very distorted ways.

Attacks on religious freedom usually take two forms — secular governments like North Korea that see religious faith as a competing ideology, a competing idea of the human person; or religiously extremist regimes like Iran that want to marginalize religious minorities.

Religious faith is a very powerful force in shaping both individual behavior and society in general. So if your goal as a government is maintaining and extending your control over a society, religious freedom can be seen as very dangerous.

Q: Some people see defending religious freedom as an intrusion of the church, especially the Catholic Church, into politics and global affairs.

Archbishop Chaput: That kind of criticism has only one purpose: to bully Catholics and other religious believers into being silent when they should speak up. People need to act on their convictions, especially their religious beliefs, or their convictions eventually disappear.

Politics is the application of power to human affairs. The use of power always raises moral, and therefore religious, questions about the nature of right and wrong, and what constitutes the common good. So the Church would be very foolish — in fact, she would be unfaithful to her mission — if she didn’t actively promote religious freedom. How a society thinks about God, sooner or later shapes how it treats the human person.

Q: What’s the right meaning of the “separation of church and state,” and how does that relate to religious freedom?

Archbishop Chaput: Religious freedom does not require an irreligious state. I think it’s possible for a society to give preferential status to one religion without automatically persecuting others.

But the devil is in the details. Many Muslims would claim that Islamic law, Shariah, achieves this by favoring Islam while guaranteeing certain rights to Jews and Christians. But the historical record shows the opposite: that Shariah actually marginalizes and oppresses Christians and other religious believers and prevents them from fully participating in the life of the nation.

In Saudi Arabia, a Muslim who converts to Christianity risks his or her life, and all non-Muslim religious practice is banned. These are fundamental violations of Article 18 — very serious violations of the human right to religious freedom.

A genuine faith in God should always lead us to a deeper respect for the rights of the human person, including people with different religions from our own, because we’re all created by the same Father. So the United States has a unique opportunity and vocation.

It can offer a great example to the world of different religions living amicably with one another and cooperating for the common good. That can only happen, of course, if religious believers take their faith peacefully but vigorously into the public square — including the voting booth.

“Separation of church and state” should never mean exiling religion from public affairs. The Constitution forbids the establishment of a specific state church. It does not forbid, and the founders never intended to forbid, active religious involvement in public debate.

Q: How does Catholic thought understand the participation of Catholics in politics?

Archbishop Chaput: Politics is where the work takes place to ensure the common good and individual human dignity. So Catholics need to be very involved. They need to understand their Catholic faith, and they need to rely on it as a guide in their political decisions.

Vatican II’s pastoral constitution on the Church in the modern world [“Gaudium et Spes”], declaration on religious liberty [“Dignitatis Humanae”] and the social encyclicals, including “Evangelium Vitae,” are tremendous resources.

Catholics should welcome cooperation with people of other religions, or no religion, who share a spirit of good will. The one thing Catholics cannot do is claim to be “Catholic” and then keep their faith out of their political actions.

You can’t personally believe in the humanity of the unborn child, and then vote for a law that allows the killing of that child. You can’t personally support religious freedom, and then be silent about an “ally” that persecutes religious minorities. That’s a form of lying.

* * *

By Jaime Septién, director of El Observador ( and Rossana Goñi, editor of El Pueblo Catolico (

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Share this Entry


Support ZENIT

If you liked this article, support ZENIT now with a donation