American inaction and complacency towards promoting religious freedom keeps the United States from exporting one of its “greatest qualities” and hinders an “honest discussion” on the relationship between Islam and democratic assumptions, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput said March 1.
“We need to insist that religious freedom – a person’s right to freely worship, preach, teach and practice what he or she believes, including the right to freely change or end one’s religious beliefs under the protection of the law – is a foundation stone of human dignity,” he commented. “No one, whether acting in the name of God or in the name of some political agenda or ideology, has the authority to interfere with that basic human right.”
The Archbishop of Denver, who served from 2003-2006 as a commissioner for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, delivered his remarks in a March 1 keynote speech at a Georgetown University conference sponsored by the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs. His talk addressed whether the role of religion in American politics and society is a model for other countries.
The United States has a history as a place of refuge for victims of religious persecution, the archbishop noted. At the same time, “(r)ight now in America, we’re not acting like we revere that legacy, or want to share it, or even really understand it. And I think we may awake one day to see that as a tragedy for ourselves, and too many others to count.”
The archbishop, drawing on his experience as a religious freedom commissioner, voiced concern that Christian minorities in Africa and Asia bear the brunt of religious violence.
“Nearly 70 percent of the world’s people now live in nations — regrettably, many of them Muslim-majority countries, as well as China and North Korea — where religious freedom is gravely restricted,” he said, citing a 2009 Pew Forum report.
The archbishop suggested that many leaders in government, media, academia and business no longer seem to regard religious faith as “a healthy or a positive social factor.” He criticized the Obama administration’s “ambivalence” toward “the widespread violations of religious liberty across the globe,” and also the inadequacy or lack of interest in the news media in reporting on these issues.
He said that the American model of religion in society can and should be adapted by other countries, because it touches upon universal desires for freedom and human dignity. “They’re inherent to all of us,” he added, noting “the democracy movements now sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.”
However, Archbishop Chaput underscored that American values themselves cannot be understood without acknowledging that they grow out of “a predominantly Christian worldview.”
“Dropping this model on non-Christian cultures – as our country learned from bitter experience in Iraq – becomes a very dangerous exercise,” he warned. “One of the gravest mistakes of American policy in Iraq was to overestimate the appeal of Washington-style secularity, and to underestimate the power of religious faith in shaping culture and politics.”
The Denver archbishop said that at the heart of the American model of public life is “a Christian vision of man, government and God.” He clarified that he was not saying that America is a “Christian nation,” or that the Protestant heritage is uniformly good. However, the American model has provided a “free, open and non-sectarian society” precisely because of its moral assumptions.
These assumptions have a religious grounding in “a Christian vision of the sanctity and destiny of the human person.” In the American model, the human person is not a product of nature or evolution or a creature of the state or the economy, or a slave of an “impersonal heaven.”
“Man is first and fundamentally a religious being with intrinsic worth, a free will and inalienable rights. He is created in the image of God, by God and for God. Because we are born for God, we belong to God. And any claims that Caesar may make on us, while important, are secondary,” he said.
Given our origins, Archbishop Chaput said that religious freedom is man’s “first and most important freedom” because he is created for a religious purpose with a religious destiny. Despite the “legion of blind spots” among the American Founders, the American logic of a society based on God’s sovereignty and human dignity has proven “remarkably capable” of self-criticism, repentance and renewal.
In the United States, he explained, religion is more than a private affair between the individual and God. It is essential to “the virtues needed for a free people,” and religious groups are expected to contribute to the social fabric.
“Americans have learned from their own past,” Archbishop Chaput concluded. “The genius of the American founding documents is the balance they achieved in creating a civic life that is non-sectarian and open to all; but also dependent for its survival on the mutual respect of secular and sacred authority. The system works. We should take pride in it as one of the historic contributions this country has made to the moral development of people worldwide.”
Archbishop Chaput's full speech can be read at: