Religious freedom leader says threats in US are real

Katrina Lantos Swett Courtesy of the American Religious Freedom Program CNA US Catholic News 5 30 13 Katrina Lantos Swett. Courtesy of the American Religious Freedom Program.

The head of a federal commission that promotes religious liberty warned that while threats to religious freedom in the U.S. are not violent, they still pose a serious 'moral test' for the country.

"There is no doubt that religious freedom faces extraordinary and novel challenges that grow out of increasing and aggressive secularism, coupled with fundamental redefinitions of core social institutions," said Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett on May 30.

"These changes are putting some religious communities on a collision course with newly emerging social concurrences on matters of morality, equality and how we define fundamental civil and human rights," she added.

Lantos Swett delivered the keynote address at the National Religious Freedom Award Dinner in Washington, D.C. The May 30 event was sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center's American Religious Freedom Program.

As the chair of the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom, Lantos Swett oversees efforts to call attention to international religious liberty violations, a process that includes advising the president, Congress and State Department on the status of religious freedom, presenting an annual report on abuses and recommending steps to promote greater global religious liberty.

In addition, she works with the Lantos Foundation, an organization named after her father, Tom Lantos, which addresses human rights concerns around the globe. She has also served as a lawyer for then-Senator Joe Biden and is involved in several human rights and public policy initiatives.

Lantos Swett remarked that her work with the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom last year found that some five billion people across the globe live in societies that permit severe religious freedom violations.

Compared to these dire situations elsewhere in the world, "the state of religious freedom in the United States is remarkably secure," she said. However, while "we, here in this country are very fortunate indeed," there are new obstacles facing religious freedom in America.

Unlike other situations around the world, America's "great moral crisis will not be a matter of life and death that demands instantaneous acts of great physical moral courage," she explained. Instead, it will draw the nation "into tangled thickets of competing moral claims."

Still, the "moral test" posed by these challenges is of the utmost importance, she cautioned, explaining that when "fundamental religious beliefs and teachings" collide with "changing social laws and mores," the traditional beliefs often "end up being characterized as narrow-minded vestiges of an unenlightened past." 

In addition, religious individuals are often forced to choose between values they admire, such as tolerance, and "upholding morality and trying to be faithful to God's commandments."

An easy solution is to relegate religious belief only to the private spheres of the home and houses of worship, Lantos Swett said, but this solution would be "quite unacceptable" because of the crucial role that religion plays in society.

She noted that many of "the most important moral crusades of our nation's history" were led by religious figures and were compelling precisely because of their religiously-grounded teachings on human dignity. 

"When men and women for themselves have the opportunity to read the Word of God," she said, "they will be empowered not only spiritually to face the challenges of this life, but they will also be empowered and emboldened to change the world in which they live now to be a better and more decent place."

"For people of religious convictions to abandon the public square would be, I believe, an abdication of both their rights and duties as citizens, and our nation and the world would be poorer for it."

Lantos Swett also observed that such a retreat from public life is a far cry from the language of the U.S. Constitution, which describes protected religious activity with the phrase "free exercise."

"'Exercise' is an active, powerful, muscular world that signifies engagement, not withdrawal," she explained.

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Religious persons, like other citizens, are called to active civic engagement, she continued, "and the fact that their views may be informed by their deeply held convictions should in no way disqualify them."

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