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Academics call religion vital to a well-functioning society
By Adelaide Mena
(L-R) Fr. Stephen Fields, Kristine Kalanges, Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite and Christopher Tollefsen discuss religious freedom at Georgetown Oct. 10. Credit: Addie Mena/CNA.
(L-R) Fr. Stephen Fields, Kristine Kalanges, Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite and Christopher Tollefsen discuss religious freedom at Georgetown Oct. 10. Credit: Addie Mena/CNA.

.- Although different belief systems create varying ideas on what's best for a nation, religious freedom is essential for the maintenance of a just and thriving society, academics said at a recent D.C. event.

“Instead of treating religious conviction as the problem, we can treat religious traditions as part of the solution,” Kristine Kalanges, law professor at the University of Notre Dame, said at an Oct. 10 panel which was part of a two-day conference sponsored by Georgetown University's Religious Freedom Project.

If society continues to treat religious traditions and viewpoints as a negative contribution to society rather than a positive one, “we’re ignoring the problem,” she warned.

“The solutions we build on top of that are not solutions, but exercises in raw power, and then the law ceases to be just.”

Kalanges made her remarks during the discussion titled “Does Every Person Everywhere – Religious or Not – Need Religious Freedom?,” part of the conference, which was called “Freedom to Flourish: Is Religious Freedom Necessary for Peace, Prosperity, and Democracy?”

Also speaking on the panel were Christopher Tollefsen, professor at the University of South Carolina, and co-author of “Embryo: A Defense of Human Life,” and Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, a professor at Chicago Theological Seminary.

Tollefsen argued that belief is a “basic good,” for all persons, and “grounds” other social phenomena. In respect of this basic good for all persons of all beliefs, religious freedom should be protected.

Kalanges echoed his statements, arguing that “religious freedom is a universal human right, regardless of culture, regardless of creed, regardless of whether they have a creed.”

Thistlethwaite, however warned against supporting the “violence” that comes from any tradition claiming “access to absolute truth.”

She argued that instead of supporting religious freedom, people should be careful in supporting such arguments, because in many places around the world, religious belief is a “part of identity” and religious freedom advocacy often leads to power struggles and conflict between groups.

Tollefsen later responded to this point, looking to the domestic disputes over the HHS contraceptive mandate, saying that “it is hard for me to see how” smaller institutions, such as those asking to run their companies by their religious beliefs, “are occupying a position of power and privilege relative to that of the state.”

The mandate was issued under the Obama administration's Affordable Care Act and requires employers to provide and pay for contraception, sterilization and abortion-causing drugs and procedures in employee health insurance plans, even if doing so violates the employer's conscience or religious beliefs.
Kalanges suggested that the tensions in society result from differing groups with “drastically different” world views trying to form one society.

These world views provide the means to answering basic human questions of what life's meaning is, and what is good. “We have to have the ability to answer the questions and live out the answers to them,” Kalanges said. “This is essential to the legitimacy of the state.”

Tollefsen warned that, for the practical maintenance of a society, religious freedom of one group is sometimes restricted because its conception of what is good is in conflict with the rest of the people's vision of what is good for society.

However, even when such differences arise, “we need to look into the restriction of any religious freedom carefully,” and question the reasons for any restriction of religious liberty and “the way in which it was done.”

Kalanges answered that in cases of such tension, a means of accommodating belief systems and ways of life should be found. “Laws that violate religious freedom are not truly laws, and they are certainly not just,” she urged.

Ultimately, however, the question of religious freedom “moves into civil society” and will depend on how society itself respects religious liberty.

“Law is only as strong as the culture” in which it is found, Kalanges stated.


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