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Chaput: Religious freedom, first among our liberties, is under threat

Religious freedom is a fundamental natural right and first among our liberties. This is borne out by the priority protection it specifically enjoys in the Constitution's First Amendment.

To mark the 225th anniversary of the Bill of Rights on Dec. 15, The Inquirer will present a 12-part series through Dec. 22 on each of the amendments, exploring why they exist and the challenges they face today.We begin with the First Amendment, and religious liberty, by Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput. 


Religious freedom is a fundamental natural right and first among our liberties. This is borne out by the priority protection it specifically enjoys in the Constitution's First Amendment.

Consider four brief points.

First, religious faith and practice are cornerstones of the American experience. Many of America's first settlers were fleeing religious persecution. Nearly all of the American founders saw religious faith as vital to the life of a free people. They believed that liberty and happiness grow organically out of virtue. And for the founders, virtue needed grounding in religious faith.

At the heart of American public life is an essentially religious vision of man and government. This model has given us a free society marked by a wide variety of cultural and religious expressions. But our system's success does not result from clever legal mechanics. Our system works precisely because of the moral assumptions that undergird it. And those assumptions have religious roots.

When the founders talked about religion, they meant more than a vague "spirituality." The distinguished legal scholar Harold Berman showed that the founders - though they had differing views about religion among themselves - understood religion positively as "both belief in God and belief in an after-life of reward for virtue, and punishment for sin." In other words, religion mattered. It made people live differently and live better. People's faith was assumed to have broad implications, including the political kind.

That leads to my second point: Freedom of religion is more than freedom of worship. The right to worship is a necessary but not a sufficient part of religious liberty. For most believers, and certainly for Christians, faith requires community. It begins in worship, but it also demands preaching, teaching, and service. Real faith always bears fruit in public witness and action. Otherwise it's just empty words.

The founders saw the public value of religious faith because they inherited its legacy and experienced its formative influence themselves. They created a nation designed to depend on the moral convictions of religious believers, and to welcome their active role in public life.

Here's my third point: Threats against religious freedom in our country are not imaginary or overstated. They're happening right now. One example is the Obama administration's Health and Human Services mandate, commonly called the contraceptive mandate, which violates the religious identity of many religiously inspired public ministries. Government now increasingly interferes with the conscience rights of medical providers, private employers, and individual citizens; and attacks the policies, hiring practices, and tax statuses of religious charities and ministries.

Much of this hostility links to Catholic and other religious teaching on the dignity of life and human sexuality. Catholic moral convictions about abortion, contraception, and the purpose of sexuality are clearly unpopular in some quarters. Yet Catholic ideas about the nature of personhood, marriage, and sexuality are rooted not just in revelation, but also in reason and natural law. Human beings have an inherent nature that is not just the product of accident or culture, but universal and rooted in permanent truths knowable to reason.

This understanding of the human person anchors the entire American experiment. If human nature is little more than modeling clay, and no permanent human nature exists by the hand of "nature's God," then natural, unalienable rights obviously can't exist. And no human "rights" can finally claim priority over the interests of the state.

The problem is that critics of religious faith tend to reduce all of these moral convictions to an expression of subjective beliefs. And if they're purely subjective beliefs, then - so the critics will argue - they can't be rationally defended. And because they're rationally indefensible, they should be treated as a form of prejudice. In effect, 2,000 years of moral experience, moral reasoning, and religious conviction suddenly become a species of bias.

There's more, though. When religious belief is redefined downward to a kind of private bias, then the religious identity of institutional ministries has no public value, other than the utility of getting credulous people to do good things. And exempting Catholic social ministries, for example, from actions that directly contradict their religious identity, becomes a concession to private "prejudice." And concessions to private prejudice feed bigotry and hurt the public - or so the reasoning goes.

This is how deeply held, deeply rooted moral teaching and religious belief end up being branded as hate speech.

So here's a fourth and final point: From the beginning, religious believers - alone and in communities - have enriched American history simply by trying to live their faith in the world. We need to realize that America's founding documents assume an implicitly religious anthropology. The trouble is that this ennobling idea of human nature, nature's God, and natural rights, is one that many of our leaders no longer share.

We ignore that fact at our own very serious peril.

Charles J. Chaput is the archbishop of Philadelphia. His book "Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World" (Henry Holt & Co.) will be published in February.