On July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence confirmed our basic human rights: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” Implicit in that document is the right to freedom of religion. On this July 4, 240 years later, we need a deeper appreciation of that right and a greater wisdom in applying it in our complex society.
In many parts of the world, religious freedom is not recognized as a basic human right. In the past century, there were more martyrs for the Christian faith than in all the previous centuries combined. Such a startling fact should shock us into gratitude for the rights we enjoy here in our nation.
While much of the world still struggles with the right to freedom of religion, in America we accept that liberty in principle but we are challenged to apply it properly in our pluralistic culture. A struggle is inherent in the very concept of freedom, as Pope Francis observed last year at Independence Hall in Philadelphia: “The right to religious freedom is a fundamental right which shapes the way we interact socially and personally with our neighbors whose religious views differ from our own. Religious freedom certainly means the right to worship God, individually and in community, as our consciences dictate. But religious liberty, by its nature, transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families.”
It is this religious freedom beyond the walls of our churches that is the present challenge for America because it is a freedom not only to speak and to act on convictions of faith in private but also in public. It is the right of employers and employees to follow their conscience. It is the right to engage in moral debate in the public square. It is the right to offer educational and social service without government interference.
But how to deal with conflicting rights? In a recent poll, many agreed with this ambiguous statement: “When there is a conflict between someone’s religious beliefs and the need to treat people equally under the law, the latter is more important.” But the proposal itself was biased. “Belief” is used as a pejorative term, gratuitously denied the same stature as a “right.” It is also a form of the deceptive wife-beating question, “Have you stopped beating your wife?” A conflict, a dichotomy, is assumed which is not necessarily true.
If the tension were proposed as between gay rights and ethnic values, or women’s issues and workers’ rights, the prevailing culture would find a way to honor both and not surrender one for the other. Opposition is not intolerance. Intolerance is insolent dismissal of the opposing view. Tolerance is, by definition, a two-way street.
Pope Francis has addressed this challenge and offered his response. “In our world, there are various forms of modern tyranny which seek to suppress religious freedom, or try to reduce it to a subculture without the right to a voice in the public square. Some have used religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality. It is imperative that the followers of the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and the rights of others.”
Father Earl Meyer is at St. Fidelis Friary, Victoria.