Religious Liberty and Freedom of Conscience

Criticizing the New Orthodoxies

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The ongoing conflict in the United States about health care regulations has focused attention on conscience and religious liberty.

In a recent book Robert P. George has collected a series of his essays and articles on this subject. As well as being a professor of law at Princeton and Harvard, on July 23 he was elected as Chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.

The essays in “Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism” (ISI Books) cover a range of topics on conscience, judicial decisions, natural law, marriage and bioethical issues.

Behind the conflicts over various cultural issues, George explained that there are philosophical ideas and assumptions, even though these are rarely mentioned, which have important consequences.

Many of those who hold secular liberal views consider that anyone who disagrees with them is either a bigot or a religious fundamentalist. His aim in this book, the introduction explained, is “to expose the emptiness of that belief.”

There are three pillars of society according to George. The first is respect for the human person. A society that does not respect human life, from the child in the womb to the elderly, will sooner or later regard humans as disposable.

The second pillar is the institution of the family, based on the commitment of a husband and a wife. No family is perfect, he admitted, but it is the best institution to transmit values and virtues to the next generation.

The third pillar is a fair and effective system of law and government.

Natural law

Another essay tackles the theme of natural law, God, and human dignity. Moral norms, that we can come to know through the exercise of our reason, enable us to direct our actions toward basic human goods.

These principles of natural law allow us to identify how to act rightly and respect the rights people possess by virtue of their humanity. The existence of principles of natural law, George continued, provide common ground for people who do not agree about God.

Another topic dealt with in the book is that of the purpose of law and government. Among the fundamental duties of government are the protection of public health and safety and the advancement of general welfare.

George argued that government’s responsibility is, however, subsidiary. That is, it supports the work of families and other institutions. Therefore, government should not usurp the roles of the family and communities within society, he said, arguing against both individualism and collectivism and in favour of limited government.

Speaking of moral principles or the possibility of knowing the truth about how to act frightens some people today, George observed. Yet, those arguing in favour of abortion or changing marriage laws make their case also by making truth claims.

The importance of knowing the truths about our human condition is a vital consideration when it comes to the debate over marriage and pressure to allow same-sex couples to marry, George explained.

Marriage is not just a mere legal convention and our bodies are not merely instruments for pleasure. Marriage is a comprehensive sharing of life founded on the bodily union made possible by the sexual complementarity of man and woman, he said.

Moreover, he warned, legalization of same-sex marriage will undermine religious liberty and family autonomy, as in the name of equality, governmental power will be used to make everyone conform.

Living in the truth

One of the essays is dedicated to the topic of religious freedom. Human rights, including the right to religious liberty, are among the moral principles that all should respect, including governments, George affirmed.

Different faith traditions have varying positions on what constitutes religion, with different doctrines and structures. One element common to all is the human effort to live in right relation to the divine and to understand a body of truths and to live in accordance with those truths.

Respect for a person’s well-being requires respect for their efforts to order their lives according to the principles of religious faith. Faith of any type cannot be authentic unless it is free, George maintained.

Given that a person’s spiritual life is integral to their fulfilment and the realization of basic human goods, it makes sense, from the perspective of reason, and not just according to religious ideas, to understand religious freedom as a fundamental human right.

Just as it would be wrong to compel an atheist to perform religious acts that he cannot in good conscience believe in, so too the rights of believers should be respected.

There are limits on religious liberty, George clarified, as evil and injustice can be committed by people for the sake of religion. There is, however, a broad and powerful presumption in favor of respecting religious liberty, he concluded.

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Fr. John Flynn

Australia Bachelor of Arts from the University of New South Wales. Licence in Philosophy from the Pontifical Gregorian University. Bachelor of Arts in Theology from the Queen of the Apostles.

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