Since America's founding, its people have understood the importance of religion as the conscience of the culture and necessary for a society to flourish, said Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl of Washington, D.C.
From the earliest days of our country's history, religion has been understood as playing a “vital role” in public life and a clear “part of the very fabric of our nation,” he explained.
“We may have quibbled over expressions of faith. We may have even been hostile to one another's faith,” he said. “But we never argued that faith doesn't belong as the foundation for our understanding of how we relate to one another and our obligations to one another.”
Cardinal Wuerl delivered the keynote address at the Catholic Perspectives on Religious Liberty symposium at Georgetown University on Sept. 13.
The event was hosted by the Maryland Catholic Bishops Conference and the Religious Freedom Project of Georgetown University's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.
The cardinal explained that religious faith has always been "deeply embedded" in American culture.
While the work of religious schools, hospitals and social ministries are important, he said, these “tangible human services” are not the only contributions that religion offers to society.
“With religious faith comes a way of living, a set of standards for moral and civil behavior,” he explained, adding that these expectations are “woven into the very fabric of our societal life.”
“'You shall not kill' is not simply a legal convention of any particular political persuasion, but rather a moral imperative rooted in our human nature, proclaimed by our religious heritage and intrinsic to the identity of all of us as a people,” he said.
Cardinal Wuerl pointed to numerous examples of early political speeches, sermons and documents that acknowledge religion’s role in a successful democracy.
Importantly, he noted, those who heard and read these early statements were not shocked by them because "religion as a presupposition for the political prosperity of our infant republic was simply accepted.”
“The natural moral law was the primary lens through which Americans perceived the basis of their legal system,” he explained.
Therefore, religious liberty was viewed as a critical freedom, intimately connected to political liberty and leading to a fruitful discussion over policy decisions, he said.
Americans have long understood that religious liberty is an inherent part of being human, not a privilege granted by the state, he observed, while at the same time recognizing that the various faith traditions serve the interests of the state by teaching their respective followers to live peacefully and respectfully.
It is fair to say that in a democracy, both “Church and state are home of the same people,” he explained, because the laws come from the people, who are formed by the moral convictions of their respective faith traditions.
Today, however, this “essential quality” of faith is often pushed aside, Cardinal Wuerl warned.
When religion is confined to the private sphere and traditional moral teaching is silenced in the public square, faith cannot play its vital role in the political process, he said.
This is dangerous for the culture, he cautioned, because America still needs religion to be “the conscience of society.”
Therefore, the cardinal said, the fight for religious freedom is not self-centered, but rather aimed at the common good of the nation.
“Our religious beliefs stand, as they have from the very beginning, ready to serve our country, our culture, our society, shedding the light of God's wisdom into the heart of the great American experiment of religious pluralism and liberty,” he said.