April 2012 - Vol. 59

Defending Religious Freedom

This excerpt is from the recent statement by Evangelicals and Catholics Together entitled, In Defense of Religious Freedom © 2012. The full statement is published in First Things, March 2012.
Assault on religious freedom
We are ...deeply concerned that religious freedom is under renewed assault around the world. While the threats to freedom of faith, religious practice, and religious participation in public affairs in Islamist and communist states are widely recognized, grave threats to religious freedom have also emerged in the developed democracies. In the West, certain religious beliefs are now regarded as bigoted. Pastors are under threat, both cultural and legal, for preaching biblical truth. Christian social-service and charitable agencies are forced to cease cooperation with the state because they will not bend their work to what Pope Benedict XVI has called the “dictatorship of relativism.” 

Proponents of human rights, including governments, have begun to define religious freedom down, reducing it to a bare “freedom of worship.” This reduction denies the inherently public character of biblical religion and privatizes the very idea of religious freedom, a view of freedom such as one finds in those repressive states where Christians can pray only so long as they do so behind closed doors. It is no exaggeration to see in these developments a movement to drive religious belief, and especially orthodox Christian religious and moral convictions, out of public life.

Given these circumstances, we offer this statement, In Defense of Religious Freedom, as a service due to God and to the common good. The God who gave us life gave us liberty. The God who has called us to faith asks that we defend the possibility that others may make similarly free acts of faith. By reaffirming the fundamental character of religious freedom, we contribute to the defense of freedom and to human flourishing, in our countries and throughout the world.

What religious freedom is
As believers in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who reveals himself fully in the Lord Jesus, we find the deepest source of religious freedom in the form or nature of the human person created by God. Human beings have been created with the capacity to know God, the will to seek God, and a spiritual thirst for God. In Genesis 1:26, the Bible teaches us that only human beings are made “in the image of God.” No one bears this image (imago Dei) more than others; no one has the right to assert that by reason of race, tribe, ethnicity, class, or sex his imaging of God is superior to another.

...Human freedom, and especially religious freedom, reflects God’s design for creation and his pattern of redemption. Religious freedom is thus grounded in the character of God as revealed in the Bible and in the moral structure of the world that we can know through reason. It is precisely as Evangelical and Catholic Christians that we affirm, on the authority of the Bible, religious freedom for all, even as we are prepared to defend religious freedom in public life through arguments drawn from reason.

Religious freedom is a fundamental right. As the American founders put it, it is “unalienable.” Religious freedom is thus a right that exists before the state. The just state recognizes this right of persons and protects it in law. In doing so, the state recognizes the limits of its own capacity: It cannot coerce consciences; it cannot compel belief. For the state that recognizes and protects religious freedom is not an omnicompetent state, but rather a state that acknowledges the rights of conscience and the prerogatives of the institutions that men and women freely sustain to express and pass on their religious convictions. It recognizes its duty to serve, and not to impede, those communities of civil society. Thus the recognition of religious freedom in full is a crucial barrier to the totalitarian temptation that seems to exist in all forms of political modernity.

In sum, religious freedom has both personal and public dimensions. It is grounded in the dignity of the human person as possessed of a thirst for the truth and a capacity to know it. The state that recognizes religious freedom as inherent and inalienable, a civil right protected by law, thereby acknowledges its incompetence over the sanctuary of human conscience. Religious freedom is fundamental both to the freedom of the individual human person and to the sustaining of just and limited governments.

In a world of manifest and innumerable inequalities, this radical equality of all men and women before God is the bond that allows us to speak meaningfully of a human family, a human race, in which we share mutual obligations—including the obligation to recognize and honor that sanctuary of conscience in which each person can meet the divine source of life. Any power, be it cultural or political, that puts unwarranted impediments in the path of the human quest for truth, which culminates in the human quest for God, is violating the order of creation....

Renewal of religious freedom 
We live in the greatest period of persecution in the history of Christianity. In the twentieth century, noble martyrs like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko gave their lives for Christ amid a cloud of witnesses greater in number than those martyred for the Name in the previous nineteen centuries of Christian history. That witness continues today in the self-sacrifice of men like Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian cabinet officer murdered because of his defense of the religious freedom of all of his fellow Pakistanis.

As Evangelicals and Catholics who seek to honor the witness of these and other martyrs, we pledge to work together for the renewal of religious freedom in our countries and around the world. We will resist the legal pressure brought on Christians in the medical profession, the armed forces, and elsewhere to participate in actions that they deem immoral on the grounds of both faith and reason.

We acknowledge that the state enjoys its own sphere of competence. But we remind the modern democratic state that it is a limited state. ...Thus we call on our public officials to undertake prudent measures to advance the cause of religious freedom in full.

In all of this, we believe we are acting as Christians have been commanded to act, and speaking as citizens of mature democracies ought to speak. Our faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and our baptism in the name of the Most Holy Trinity, compels us to defend the religious freedom of all who are created in the image of God. Our gratitude for the religious freedom that has been a hallmark of North America for over two centuries compels us to work to defend religious freedom in the United States and Canada, and to work for the religious freedom of others in all lands. 

For the sake of the common good, we, Evangelicals and Catholics Together, urge our fellow citizens and our public officials to join us in the renewal of religious freedom: to defend religious freedom for all persons and to guard against its erosion in our societies. 

Evangelicals and Catholics Together

 Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT) is a fellowship of Christian pastors, theologians, and educators in North America. ECT was formed 18 years ago by John Richard Neuhaus and Charles Colson, along with other prominent religious leaders, to deepen the dialogue among their respective Christian communities on issues of common concern, to explore theological common ground, and to offer in public life a common witness born of Christian faith. 

Since their founding in 1994, they have addressed together important public policy questions, such as the defense of life, and they have proposed  patterns of theological understanding on such long-disputed questions, such as the gift of salvation, the authority of Scripture, and the call to holiness in the communion of saints. 

Previous Statements by
Evangelicals and Catholics Together

click cover image to open  document 

The Christian Mission 
in the Third Millenium
May 1994

The Gift of Salvation
January 1998

The Communion of Saints
March 2003

Your Word Is Truth
January 2005

The Call to Holiness
March 2005

Do Whatever He Tells You: 
The Blessed Virgin Mary in
Christian Faith and Life 
November 2009

In Defense of Religious 
March 2012


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