Religious freedom in the United States has historically been understood as allowing religion to “flourish unfettered from government intrusion,” said Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York.
“Simply put, government has no business interfering in the internal life of the soul, conscience, or church,” said the cardinal, who serves at the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Cardinal Dolan delivered the John Carroll Society Lecture at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 10.
He voiced concern that “the promotion and protection of religious liberty is becoming caricatured as some narrow, hyper-defensive, far-right, self-serving cause.”
“Nothing can be more inaccurate,” he said. “Rather, freedom of religion has been the driving force of almost every enlightened, un-shackling, noble cause in American history.”
Cardinal Dolan attempted to “restore the luster” of religious freedom by outlining its role throughout American history.
The American Revolution itself was influenced by the Great Awakening and spurred on by ministers who encouraged participation in the fight for freedom, he observed.
Churches served as “an essential partner” in the American Revolution, and freedom of religion was praised in the new nation’s foundational documents, securing “a spot in the public square for the voices of those speaking from a faith-formed conscience,” he said.
In the fight against the slavery, abolitionist leaders were “mostly inspired by religious conviction,” he noted, listing prominent figures whose “devotion to the cause to end slavery flowed from a conscience formed by faith.”
“In a land where loyalty to conscience and freedom of religion were not guaranteed, emancipation would have come at a much tragically later date,” he said.
Women’s leading roles in the abolitionist movement are sometimes seen as contributing to the “advancement of women” in American society, he added, and religion also influenced the temperance movement and other reforms.
In addition, the cardinal continued, the Civil Rights Movement would “never have flourished” without “the unfettered preaching of the Gospel,” and “the leadership of Black southern preachers,” including Reverend Martin Luther King.
Cardinal Dolan pointed to Dr. King’s Letters from a Birmingham Jail as “perhaps one of the most cogent proof texts for religious freedom.”
Religion and religious liberty have also played key roles in more recent movements such as the pro-life cause and other initiatives favoring peace and urban reform, he added.
The cardinal observed that the Catholics who first came to America – often settling in Maryland, a colony that served as a “laboratory” of religious freedom – did not seek “any favored status for either their beloved Catholic faith or any other religion.”
“Nor did they want their faith, however normative in their own life, to have any institutional input in the colonial government,” he said. “Mainly, they just wanted to be left alone.”
He explained that today, as when the nation was founded, Catholics do not “want privileges from the state,” but simply want to be left alone in order to “practice their faith, and follow their properly formed consciences in the public square.”
It is this “guiding principle of religious freedom” that was enshrined in the nation’s constitution, he said.
Cardinal Dolan warned of the modern threat to religious freedom posed by secularists who will tolerate religion only as a “private hobby,” refusing to let it have “any voice in the public square.”
Also troubling, he said, is the “direct intrusion of the government into the very definition of a church’s minister, ministries, message, and meaning.”
As patriotic Americans and faithful Catholics, we must fight not only for our right to live out our faith in the privacy of our homes and churches, but also “the freedom to carry the convictions of a faith-formed conscience into our public lives,” he stressed.
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