Posted April 27, 2015 6:37 PM by

Despotism can do without genuine faith —but freedom cannot…



(CUSA) – If religious freedom is not allowed in it’s fulness the advances of terrorism in the name of religion will only increase.


This speech by Archbishop Thomas Wenski at “Religion Matters II” Forum was hosted by the U.S. Southern Command to explore religion’s positive influences in countering terrorism and illicit trafficking. April 21, 2015. —Ed.





Perhaps a good place to begin this conversation about religion and how religion matters is with a quote from Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote approvingly about our American experiment in democracy in the 19th century. He said, “Despotism may be able to do without faith but freedom cannot.”


Religious freedom is the human right that guarantees all other rights. As the world becomes more diversified through technology, migration, cultural changes and scientific progress, peace and creative living together will only be possible only if freedom of religion is full respected.


Political analysts and human rights advocates do include religion on their agenda. But most emphasize “tolerance” as if religion were only a source of conflict. Or they speak about religion in terms of “individual choices” as if religion were merely the concern of an individual’s conviction and were devoid of any social consequences.


Yet, just as freedom of speech depends not only on one’s right to say what’s on one’s mind but also on the existence of institutions like newspapers, universities, libraries, political parties and other associations that make up what we call “civil society,” so too freedom of religion must also encompass protecting those institutions that nourish the individual’s free exercise of religion.


A reasoned approach to human rights and religious liberty is centered on the person. We cannot forget that the religious dimension of the person is part of human experience in all cultures and social contexts.


Therefore, instead of hostility towards religion a correct relationship between religious norms and the public sphere can and must be articulated. It is in such a correct relationship that fosters a mutual openness between believers of different religions and non-believers of good will that the promotion of the common good and peace can be promoted.


St. John Paul II, speaking from his own personal experience having lived under the repression of religion in a Marxist-Leninist state, taught that:


Dialog between cultures, a privileged means for building the civilization of love, is based upon the recognition that there are values which are common to all cultures because they are rooted in the nature of the person. These values express humanity’s most authentic and distinctive features. Leaving aside ideological prejudices and selfish interests, it is necessary to foster people’s awareness of these shared values, in order to nurture that intrinsically universal culture ‘hummus-soil’ which makes for fruitful and constructive dialog.


In the aftermath of World War II and in response to its horror and the systematic violation of human dignity and human rights by the Nazi and Communist totalitarian regimes, we saw the enactment by the United Nations in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


This declaration provided on an international level, as the first amendment did in our own country, a juridical arsenal to protect freedom of religion. This declaration with other declarations, conventions and charters that followed upon it have “guaranteed” religious freedom at the individual, the collective and institutional levels. The Universal Declaration set a standard for what type of treatment human beings are entitled, as well as for what states are morally obliged to enforce.


But declarations are not enough. As a Haitian proverb says, Konstitisyon se papye, bayonet se fè. Constitutions are just paper but bayonets are steel.


And today no one can doubt that religious freedom is under stress throughout the world. During the 20th century, some 45 million Christians died because of their faith. And the trend continues: In 2011, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 70 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with high restrictions on religious beliefs and practices.


And nearly a third of the world’s population lives in countries where either government restrictions on religion or social hostilities involving religion rose substantially in the first decade of the 21st century. All you have to do is read the newspaper to confirm the Pew study.


And while atrocities are committed against peoples and institutions of all the world’s religions, the International Society for Human Rights estimates that 80 percent of all acts of religious discrimination in the world today are directed at Christians and that some 150,000 Christians are killed for the faith every year. So the Age of Martyrs did not conclude with the Peace of Constantine; it is still with us.


The struggle for religious freedom endures. Even in Western liberal democracies, religious discrimination is growing – albeit in perhaps more sophisticated ways. In our country as in other Western countries, there is a tendency of relegate religion to the private sphere.


And in these countries we see the courts chipping away at the original understand of religious freedom. In order to fit new political agendas, religious freedom is being reinterpreted narrowing to mean merely “freedom to worship” but excluding the freedom to serve or the freedom to witness.


The Catholic Church is this country is currently battling in legislatures and in courts against this tendency. And it is not clear that we will prevail.  Education, family law, healthcare are just some of the areas in which narrow readings of religious freedom are paving the way for antireligious policies.


The expression “religious freedom” (libertas religionis) was first coined by Teretullian at the beginning of the third century. And the journey leading to the recognition of the right to freedom of conscience and belief as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the first amendment has been long and painful.


But it began with Jesus’ words: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” With this, we understood that as Christians we were to fulfill our obligations to the fullest extent possible both to God and the state.


But, at the same time, there are limits to the jurisdiction of earthly rulers. Caesar’s image is on those things necessary to the proper functioning of civil society, and there civil government legitimately exerts power over this realm.


But since human beings bear the image of God, the imago Dei, their allegiance to God takes precedence over their allegiance to the state. So three premises are established from these brief words of Jesus that are valid for more than just Christians, and these premises are certainly incorporated in both the U.S. Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


  • First, there is a distinction between religion and the state and both are legitimate;
  • Second, God has priority in the case of conflict between the two;
  • Third, since genuine love for God comes willingly from the inner person and therefore forced love is an impossibility, genuine religious devotion is voluntary.


Thus religious freedom is the right of every person to profess religion (or not) according to the dictates of his or her conscience. This right to establish a relation with God in the intimacy of one’s conscience implies both an individual-focused and a communitarian way to exercise this relation that must be protected from any constraint.


Again, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is really a milestone. Allow me to quote Article 18.


Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world… Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.


This article 18 remains the cornerstone of the international framework for recognition of and respect for religious freedom and, together with other treaties, it provides the arsenal that theoretically and juridically can protect religious freedom everywhere. Peace requires religious freedom – and the commitment that flows from faith benefits the entire society.


Of course, today, given the profound changes that have occurred in the world due to globalization, and in many societies because of a growing secularism which often also includes extreme forms of individualism, the question is how to find common values that promote social cohesion and allow for peaceful coexistence in society and at the same time respect religious freedom.

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