Building a Culture of Religious Freedom
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap
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Back in April, Gerard Baker, The Wall Street Journal’s editor at large, wrote a column that I hope every person in the audience today will track down and read. The title was “Persecuted Christians and Their Quiescent Leaders,” and he hammered home two facts. First, Christians of every tradition — Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox — are now the most widely and brutally persecuted religious community in the world. And second, too many Christian leaders in too many countries, including our own, are too cowardly to name it for what it is — especially when it comes at the hands of Muslim extremists.
Thankfully, cowardice is not a word you’ll find in Alliance Defending Freedom’s vocabulary. And the threats to religious liberty in our own country come from a different, shrewder — but every bit as ugly — brand of extremism. So it’s a blessing and a joy for me to be with you today. Courage, like cowardice, is infectious, and very few people can match the courage and character permeating the entire ADF team. These are extraordinary persons doing extraordinary work, and I count it a privilege to admire them. But I’ll come back to that at the end of my comments.
I want to talk today about “building a culture of religious freedom.” So the question that naturally follows is How do we do it? I think I can help us answer that. But I need to offer a few preliminary thoughts.
Here’s my first point, and it’s very simple: We’re mortal, and we’re going to die. My father was a funeral director, and I grew up in a home where death was both something sacred and a natural part of life. Obviously, life is a gift of God and is therefore precious. We need to protect it, preserve it, help it to flourish, and make it meaningful.
But for persons of faith, death isn’t something to fear. God never abandons the people who love Him. So I’ve always found it odd how people in the American culture spend such a huge amount of energy ignoring death or distracting themselves from thinking about it. Our time in this world is very limited; science can’t fix the problem, and there’s no government bailout program. Our time matters. And so does the way we use it. As all of the great saints understood, pondering death can have a wonderfully medicinal effect on human behavior.
The reason is obvious. If we believe in an afterlife where we’re held accountable for our actions, then that belief has very practical implications for our choices in this world. Obviously, some people don’t believe in God or an afterlife, and they need to act in a way that conforms to their convictions. But that doesn’t absolve us from following ours.
For those of us who are Christians, the trinity of virtues we call faith, hope, and charity should shape everything we do, both privately and in our public lives. Faith in God gives us hope in eternal life. Hope casts out fear and enables us to trust in the future and to love. And the love of God and other human persons — the virtue of charity — is the animating spirit of all authentically Christian political action. By love, I don’t mean a sentimental or indulgent sense, the kind that offers “tolerance” as an alibi for inaction in the face of evil. I mean love in the biblical sense: love that comes from a heart of courage, that is determined to build justice in society, and that is focused on the true good of the whole human person, body and soul.
Human progress means more than getting more stuff, more entitlements, and more personal license. Real human progress always includes man’s spiritual nature. Real human progress satisfies the human hunger for solidarity and communion. So when our leaders and their slogans tell us to move “forward into the future,” we need to take a very hard look at the road we’re on, where “forward” leads, and whether it ennobles the human soul or just aggravates our selfishness, our isolation, and our appetite for things.
What all this means for our public life is this: Religious believers can live quite peacefully with the separation of Church and state, so long as the arrangement translates into real freedom of religion and not its half-starved copy called “freedom of worship.” We can never accept a separation of our religious faith and moral convictions from our public ministries or political engagement. It’s impossible. And even trying to do so is evil because it forces us to live two different lives, worshiping God at home and in our churches, and worshiping the latest version of Caesar everywhere else. That turns our private convictions into lies we tell to ourselves and to each other.
Here’s my second point. Religious faith sincerely believed and humbly lived serves human dignity. It fosters virtue, not conflict. Therefore, it’s vital in building a humane society. This should be too obvious to mention. But one of the key assumptions of the modern secular state — in effect, the secular creation myth — is that religion is naturally prone to violence because it’s irrational and divisive. Secular, non-religious authority, on the other hand, is allegedly rational and unitive. Therefore, the job of secular authority is peacemaking — in other words, to keep religious fanatics from killing each other and everybody else.
The problem with that line of thought is this: It’s simply an Enlightenment fantasy. Secular politics and ideologies have murdered and oppressed more people in the last 100 years — often in the name of “science” — than all religions together have managed to mistreat in the last millennium.
What’s really going on in much of today’s political hand-wringing about religious extremism and looming theocracy is a push by America’s elites and leadership classes to get religion out of the way. God is a competitor in forming the public will. So God needs to go.
Here’s my third point. Man is a moral and believing image-bearer of God. The need to believe is hardwired into human nature. Christian Smith, Notre Dame’s distinguished social researcher, notes that all human beings, everywhere and always, have a need to believe something as an organizing idea or truth and to behave according to a moral code that distinguishes right from wrong.
Why is that important? It’s important because any claim that atheists, agnostics, and a secularized intelligentsia are naturally more “rational” than religious believers is nonsense. We’re all believers. There are no unbelievers. Smith puts it this way:
“All human beings are believers, not ‘knowers’ who know with certitude. Everything we know is grounded on presupposed beliefs that cannot be verified with more fundamental proof or certainty that provides us with assurance they are true. That is just as true for atheists as [it is] for religious adherents. … All human knowing is built on believing. That is the human condition.”
To put it another way, atheists just worship a smaller and less forgiving god at a different altar. And it means that people of faith should make no apologies — none at all — for engaging public issues respectfully but vigorously, guided by a faith that informs and humanizes their reason.
Having said all that, the question we must ask is: How can we build a culture of religious freedom?
We can start by changing the way we think. Patriotism is a limited virtue. Our political system has many strengths. But it’s not an end in itself. Majority opinion doesn’t determine what is good and true. Like every other form of social organization, democracy can become a form of idolatry and a license for inhumanity. The deep moral problems we now face in our country didn’t happen overnight. They’ve been fed by a false understanding of freedom for decades, and they have roots in the exile of God from public consciousness.
We also need to change the way we act. We can’t quick-fix our way out of problems we behaved ourselves into, and I’ll give you an example from my own experience. Catholics have done very well in the United States. Most of us have a deep love for our country and its best ideals. But this is not our final home. There’s no automatic harmony between the Christian faith and American democracy. The eagerness of Catholics to push their way into our country’s mainstream over the past half-century, and to climb the ladder of social and economic success, has done very little to Christianize American culture. But it’s done a great deal to bleach out the zeal and faith of everyday Catholics and to weaken the power of any distinctive Catholic witness…. The right to pursue happiness, which is so central to the American experience, does not include a right to excuse or ignore evil in ourselves or anyone else. When we divorce our politics from a grounding in virtue and truth, we transform our country from a living moral organism into a kind of golem of legal machinery without a soul.
This is why working for good laws is so important. It’s why getting involved politically is so urgent. In America, we elect public servants, not messiahs, and we need to remind them of that. Often. Our public officials are our public employees — no more and no less. They’re the paid staff of what the Romans called our res publica, the “public thing” and system of government in which we all have equal ownership. This in no way diminishes the value of public service. But it should remind us that we ultimately get the nation we deserve, either through our diligence or our indifference.
This is also why every one of our elections matters. Politics involves the exercise of power, and power always has moral implications. This is why voting is a moral exercise. We have a duty — not just a right but a duty — to elect the best possible public leaders and then hold them accountable to create good policies and appoint good judges. Our engagement as citizens has a huge impact on the kind of nation we become. Democracies depend for their survival on people of conviction fighting for what they believe in the public square — legally and peacefully but zealously and without apologies. That includes you and me.
Critics often accuse faithful Christians of pursuing a “culture war” on issues like abortion, sexuality, marriage and the family, and religious liberty. And in a sense, they’re right. We are fighting for what we believe. But of course, so are advocates on the other side of all these issues. They too are “culture warriors,” and neither they nor we should feel uneasy about it. Democracy thrives on the struggle of competing ideas. We steal from ourselves and everyone else if we try to avoid that struggle. In fact, two of the worst qualities in any human being are cowardice and acedia, and by acedia I mean the kind of moral sloth that masquerades as “tolerance” and leaves a human soul so empty of courage and character that even C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape would spit it out.
In real life, democracy is built on two practical pillars: cooperation and conflict. It requires both. Cooperation because people have a natural hunger for the kind of solidarity that makes all community possible. And conflict because people have competing visions of what’s right and true. The more deeply people hold to their convictions, the more naturally they seek to have those convictions shape society.
What that means for people of faith is this: We have a duty to treat all persons with charity and justice. We have a duty to seek common ground where possible. But that’s never an excuse for compromising with grave evil. It’s never an excuse for being naive. And it’s never an excuse for standing idly by while our liberty to preach and serve God in the public square is whittled away. As the team at ADF knows better than anyone, we need to work vigorously in law and politics to form our culture in a God-based understanding of human dignity and the purpose of human freedom. Otherwise, we should stop trying to fool ourselves that we really believe what we claim to believe.
There’s more. For our country’s political life to work as intended, America needs a special kind of citizenry: a mature, well-informed electorate of persons able to reason clearly and rule themselves prudently. If that’s true — and it is — then the greatest danger to American liberty in our day is not religious extremism. It’s something very different. It’s a culture of narcissism that cocoons us in dumbed-down, bigoted news, vulgarity, distraction, and noise, while methodically excluding God from the human imagination.
Søren Kierkegaard once wrote that “the introspection of silence is the condition of all educated intercourse,” and that “talkativeness is afraid of the silence which reveals its emptiness.” Silence feeds the soul. Silence invites God to speak. And silence is exactly what American culture no longer allows. Securing the place of religious freedom in our society is therefore not just a matter of law and politics but of prayer, interior renewal, and education.
All of us who are people of faith need to re-examine the spirit that has ruled our approach to American life for the past many decades. In forming our pastors, teachers, and catechists — and especially the young people in our schools and religious education programs — we need to be much more penetrating and critical in our attitudes toward the culture around us. We need to recover our distinctive religious identities and histories. Then we need to act on them.
America is becoming a very different country, and as Ross Douthat argued so well in his book Bad Religion, a renewed American Christianity needs to be not only ecumenical but also confessional. Why? Because “in an age of institutional weakness and doctrinal drift, American Christianity has much more to gain from a robust Catholicism and a robust Calvinism, than it does from even the most fruitful Catholic-Calvinist theological dialogue.”
The America of memory is not the America of the present moment or the emerging future. Sooner or later, a nation will emerge based on a degraded notion of liberty, on license rather than real freedom — in other words, a nation of abortion, sexual confusion, consumer greed, and indifference to immigrants and the poor. And on that day, our nation will not be worthy of its founding ideals, and it will have no claim on virtuous hearts.
But we can change that. Nothing about life is predetermined, except — for those of us who are Christians — the victory of Jesus Christ. We create the future. We do it not just by our actions but by what we really believe, because what we believe shapes the kind of people we are. In a way, “growing a culture of religious freedom” should be the real theme for this talk. A culture is a living creature, rooted in fertile, living soil that’s more than simply dirt. It grows organically out of the authentic spirit of a people — how we live, what we cherish, and what we’re willing to die for.
If we want a culture of religious freedom, we need to begin living that culture here, today, and now. We live it by giving ourselves wholeheartedly to God (by loving God with passion and joy, confidence and courage) and by holding nothing back. God will take care of the rest. Scripture says, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Psalm 127:1). In the end, God is the builder. We’re the living stones. The firmer our faith, the deeper our love, the purer our zeal for God’s will, then the stronger the house of freedom will be that rises in our own lives and in the life of our nation.
I’ll end now with just a few thoughts that are a bit more personal.
I turned 75 in September 2019, and under Canon Law — the law that orders the internal life of the Catholic Church — I offered my resignation to Pope Francis. When I sat down to write these remarks in 2019, I did it knowing that this talk would probably be the last one I would give as Archbishop of Philadelphia. So the words matter. I’ve been a priest for many decades and a bishop for more than 30. And that gift from God as a priest of Jesus Christ has been a source of deep and enduring happiness — the greatest blessing of my life.
But in fact, my life has been filled with too many blessings to count; blessings that include so many friends. And the leaders, staff, and supporters of ADF will always rank very high among them. All of you know the importance of the work you do, or you wouldn’t do it. But what you can’t know, at least in this world, is how many thousands of people you’ve lifted up with courage and confidence and hope through your efforts.
That’s the essence of friendship — offering ourselves, out of love, for the sake of others — and friendship is the heart of the Christian life. Every Christian vocation is simply an intimate friendship with God and with others who love Him. And it always brings forth new life: for a married couple, children; for those of us in ministry, the birth of faith in another person’s heart. Always new life. God radiates beauty, hope, and new life, and He can’t help Himself. It’s in his nature to love. He proved that once and for all on Golgotha. So thank you, to everyone in ADF, for all that you do for the rest of us in His name.
Many years ago, the neurologist Oliver Sacks published a book called Awakenings. It’s the story of an experiment Sacks ran in 1969. Sacks gave the drug L-Dopa to a group of patients who had been catatonic for decades. The results were dramatic. The patients literally “woke up” to a much higher level of understanding, functioning, and communication. And they discovered a world that had greatly changed since their original illness.
The results were temporary. All of the patients eventually slipped back into silence or developed other medical problems. But while they had their window of clarity they saw the world as it really is, and they experienced it with all of the wonder, suffering, fear, and joy that give life its grandeur.
We need to remember those patients. We need to wake each other up to see the world and our nation as they really are — the good along with the evil. We need to support each other in the work for the religious freedom we share. We need to treat each other as friends, not enemies or strangers. We need to learn from each other’s successes and mistakes. And unlike the patients of Dr. Sacks, we need to keep each other from slipping back into the narcotic haze that so much of America’s everyday life has become.
To put it another way: It’s important for our own integrity and the integrity of our country to fight for our convictions in the public square. But the greater task is to live what we claim to believe by our actions: fidelity to God, love for spouse and children, loyalty to friends, generosity to the poor, honesty and mercy in dealing with others, trust in the goodness of people, discipline and humility in demanding the most from ourselves.
These things sound like pieties, and that’s all they are. Until we try to live them. Then their cost and their difficulty remind us that we create a culture of human dignity in the measure that we give our lives to others. Nations change when people change. And people change through the witness of other people — people like each of you here today. You create the future with the choices you make. So serve the poor. Help the weak. Protect the unborn child. Speak the truth about the beauty and order of creation: “Male and female he created them” (Genesis 5:2). Fight for your right to love and serve God and for others to do the same. Defend the dignity of marriage and the family, and witness their meaning and hope to others by the example of your lives.
If you do that, you’ll inspire others to do the same. And you’ll discover in your own life what it means to be fully human.
God bless you all.
About Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap
Archbishop Emeritus Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap., was named archbishop of Philadelphia in 2011 by Pope Benedict XVI. As a member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, he was the second Native American to be ordained a bishop in the United States and is the first Native American archbishop. Chaput is the author of Strangers in a Strange Land, Living the Catholic Faith, and Render unto Caesar, as well as numerous articles and public talks. Retiring as archbishop emeritus in 2020, he continues his extensive writing and public speaking.
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