Defending Religious Freedom

Threats at Home and Abroad

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By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, JUNE 28, 2012 ( As the Church in the United States continues its campaign to defend religious liberty, with its “Fortnight for Freedom” campaign a recently-published book examined the variety of threats.

In “Challenges to Religious Liberty in the Twenty-First Century,” (Cambridge University Press) editor Gerard V. Bradley, collected ten essays on the subject, divided into five pairs, each examining a different dimension of the debate.

Challenges to religious liberty appear in news headlines daily, he noted in his introduction. Bradley, a professor of law at the University of Notre Dame, commented that while religious liberty can be defended by a political regime it first needs a critical mass of people to believe and value religious liberty.

Various studies, he noted, have shown that around two-thirds of the world’s population live in countries with high restrictions on religious freedom, at a time, when paradoxically, all the main international declarations affirm it.

Bradley mentioned the often bloody persecutions in overseas countries, but also referred to the situation in the United States, where he said that the most urgent challenge to religious freedom is conscience protection.

There will always be conflicts between laws and religious consciences, observed Christopher Wolfe in his essay. The best we can do, said Wolfe, who is co-director of the Ralph McInerny Institute for Thomistic Studies, is to try to establish sound general principles.

He explained that for the first one hundred and fifty years of U.S. constitutional law belief and religiously based action was fully protected. This started to change in the middle of the twentieth century when courts came to the position that a compelling state interest could place limits on religious actions.

Wolfe argued that it should not be up to the courts alone to decide constitutional issues, and that judges should not make policy decisions in areas where often the Constitution is unclear because it is phrased in very general terms.


Religious liberty should be defended for two main reasons Wolfe explained. Firstly, it allows people to worship God and to carry out their religious duties. Secondly, it preserves the moral good of people, who are permitted to act in accord with their consciences.

Conscience was also the topic of Christopher Tollefsen’s contribution. A professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina, Tollefsen explained that: “Judgments of conscience are our final verdict on how we are to constitute ourselves.”

This capacity for free action in accord with our conscience distinguishes us from other animals and therefore must be protected as much as possible.

When it comes to religion, Tollefsen insisted that liberty of conscience is vital as it enables us to seek religious truth and to act accordingly.

The state, he continued, is meant to protect its citizens. Therefore, the state should defend liberty of conscience.

A position echoed by Thomas Farr, a senior Fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. “Religious freedom is a moral and political good for all human beings and all societies,” he affirmed in his article.

Therefore, he continued, even a partial denial of religious freedom, “is an assault on human dignity and justice, as well as on the foundational moral and political principle of equality under the law.”

Other nations

If the United States, he said. Were able to help other nations embrace religious freedom, this would be not only a defense of human dignity but a major moral and political achievement.

The international dimension of religion was the topic of another recently published book, “Rethinking Religion and World Affairs,” (Oxford University Press) a selection of essays edited by Timothy Samuel Shag, Alfred Stepan and Monica Duffy Toft.

Religion was supposed to have been sidelined by secularism, noted Shag in his introduction. But after September 11 it occupied the center of world attention. Mainstream theories of world politics tended to be very secular with regard to motivation the events of past years have shown ho theories of world affairs need to take into account religious factors, Shag observed.

Religion is not dangerous, affirmed Toft in her essay in the book. In fact, violence is the exception. While religion can be a source of violence it has also mobilized millions of people to oppose authoritarian regimes and to relieve human suffering.

Why has religious violence become more prominent in these times, she asked. Secularist ideologies that at one time seem destined to triumph have failed and there has also been a resurgence of religious faith around the world.

Interreligious dialogue and international relations was the subject of the essay by Thomas Banchoff, an associate professor at Georgetown University. The post Vatican II period has seen a flourishing of interfaith dialogue, he observed.

As these and many other books demonstrate religion is an integral part of human life and attempts to ignore it or to eliminate its role are only destined to fail.

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