Correcting the Narrative

Keynote Given at University of Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit by Cardinal Timothy Dolan 

June 28, 2021

Dean Cole and Professor Barclay, my brother bishops with whom I'm so honored to be with, Bishop Rhoades, our local bishop, Archbishop Hebda, Bishop Zaidan, brother priests, distinguished ecumenical and interreligious participants, faculty, students, and guests here at Our Lady's University:

I sure appreciate your gracious invitation, your warm welcome, and kind introduction. It is rather I, who am grateful to be here among you, such a distinguished group. I feel in a way like I am at a family reunion, or among friends, because I recognize and appreciate so many of you from our work and defense and advocacy of religious freedom.

That this lecture is also co-sponsored by the de Nicola Center adds to my happiness. What was it Carter, about two years ago that we had the dedication? Since then I’ve tracked with high interest your publications, your events, your conferences, growing all the time in my appreciation to Tony and Christie de Nicola for their benefaction.

You also realize, I trust, that this conference here at Notre Dame occurs during the Week of Religious Freedom as proposed by the bishops of the United States for the past decade. It's scheduled each year to begin with the feast day of two martyrs to the rights of conscience, Saint Thomas Moore and Saint John Fisher, and conclude on the 4th of July. To know that we're here during the Religious Freedom Week is especially satisfying. It's appropriate to note that we assemble on the feast of Saint Irenaeus, in our Catholic calendar, a martyr whose insight rings through the centuries. Remember his insight, the glory of God is man fully alive, and as we continue this day would add that man is fully alive when he or she has the liberty to acknowledge the very glory of God. Remembering these martyrs and Peter and Paul who we celebrate tomorrow helps us recall the words of Pope Benedict, “the martyrs died for their faith and for this very reason they also died for freedom of conscience and the freedom to profess and practice one's own faith. A profession that no state can ever impose.”

Now look, my words, they've given me about a 1/2 hour, my words this afternoon will not be overly cerebral or lengthy. Many of you could give a much more scholarly talk than I ever could attempt. These words come from a pastor, a citizen who believes deeply in religious freedom. Not just as a nice idea, but as essential to the dignity of the human person and the flourishing of all that is noble in us.

I've entitled this presentation, “Correcting the Narrative.“ Why? Because I'm afraid that what used to be a rather non-controversial, no brainer, defending religious freedom, something as American as mom, apple pie, the flag, and Knute Rockne, has now become caricatured I'm afraid as an oppressive, partisan, right-wing, unenlightened crusade. This novel and unfortunate caricature was evident recently to Dan Balserak. I'm glad he's here. He's our director of our committee on religious freedom. On a conference call sponsored by the administration was stunned by a participant’s observation that (the participant did not represent the administration, but nonetheless felt free to add) religious liberty is but a buzzword for discrimination. Now here I stupidly thought that opposition to religious liberty was discrimination. As our foreparents would propose. Remember what James Madison insisted? For anyone can be considered as a member of civil society, he must be considered as a subject of the supreme governor of the universe.

So help me try to correct this narrative and I got four points alright.

Number one, you and I advocate for religious freedom not primarily because we're believers, but because we're Americans.

Two, the defense of religious liberty is hardly some ultra- conservative issue, but one historically considered part of the movement that is usually called progressive and reforming in our history. 

Three, the reason we cherish freedom of religion is not to protect the government from religion, but free exercise from the government butting in.

And finally, I fear our culture may have moved from its former postures of encouraging a place in the public square for believers, then to neutrality about the role of faith in the public square, to now an outright antagonism to any voice inspired by faith having a welcomed place in the national discourse.

Alright let me take each one separately:

Here's number one: Religious liberty is not primarily a creedal or ecclesial matter, it's one of human rights and the American experiment in ordered liberty.

Now to be sure, religion certainly benefits from this first of the four guaranteed rights listed first in the Bill of Rights, and our critics may thus be accurate in charging that our muscular defense of it can be self-serving for us believers. But we're defenders of this first right precisely as patriots, as Americans, as rational human beings.

Matter of fact my own faith was a johnny-come-lately to the cause of religious liberty because historically the church, at least since the time of Constantine, has been convinced that the union of crown and cross was probably the best form of governments. Only 144 years ago did James Cardinal Gibbons, the Archbishop of our Premier See of Baltimore, raise eyebrows and snickers and criticism in Rome. He was there to take possession of his titular church as a cardinal and he stunned the staid congregation with words, rather matter of fact for us as Americans. Listen to what he said, “for myself as a citizen of the United States, without closing my eyes to our defects as a nation, I proclaim with a deep sense of pride and gratitude, and in this great capital of Christendom, that I belong to a country where the government holds over us the aegis of protection without ever interfering in the legitimate exercise of our sublime mission as ministers of the Gospel.”

Now I bring this episode up to illustrate that Catholics, at least in the United States, were hardly early and avid promoters of religious liberty. Sure they were grateful for it, but for them it wasn't anything credle, it was simply a radiant jewel in the crown of the multiple freedoms assured in their new country. And my hunch is that such was true with the other faiths so ably represented here this afternoon. Religious freedom was a fact of the American experiment in our democracy, which people of all faiths celebrated, relished, and deeply appreciated, and people of no faith at all, and if necessary would rise to defend the disloyal Americans, not just as believers.

So my point, my first point, is that our history demonstrates that religious liberty was hardly a self-serving credle interest. It was an insistence of our founders and framers who almost were hardly pillars of their churches, who were certainly convinced of  the human rights tradition of the Enlightenment, who insisted that the lack of toleration for all faiths that had set Europe ablaze was not about to make the Atlantic crossing and who bristled at the privileges given the Church of England.

So I vigorously defend our first and most cherished liberty, not because I'm a believer, but because I'm a citizen. I defend it not to boost the church, but to boost the human rights tradition at the heart of our Republic. No wonder George Washington doubted if democracy could even survive without the vibrant free exercise of religion and a muscular vigilance guarding religion from outside intrusion. No wonder Alexis de Tocqueville, still considered probably the most perceptive commentator in American democracy, would conclude that this fragile democratic republic would indeed survive and flourish. Why? Because of the religious freedom given to its churches. 

Here's point two in my attempt to correct the narrative: The defense of religious liberty is not a nasty, unenlightened, nationalistic, right-wing movement to halt the progressive engine.

I'm afraid that the promotion and protection of religious liberty is becoming caricatured in some circles as a narrow, hyper-defensive, far-right, self-serving cause. Not so in our history. Freedom of religion has been the driving force of almost every enlightening, unshackling, noble cause in American history.

So thus the defense of religious freedom is not some white, evangelical Christian poplitic, or a wily strategy of discredited religious leaders, it's the quintessential American cause, the first line in the defense of and protection of all human rights.

Religious freedom has always been understood in this land as one of a cluster of fundamental freedoms, right. What do I mean by that? Spheres of free thought and action essential to liberty. The normative idea of a constitutionally, democratically, restrained government. A government that makes no theological judgments, that's religious freedom; that does not handcuff the media, that's freedom of press; that does not dictate thought or culture, that's free speech; that does not dominate all the room of the humane society, that's freedom of assembly; and is predicated on the belief in human equality and dignity.

In fact the case can be made that the founders were characteristically wise in placing freedom of religion as the first in that famous quartet since the others would sure be in jeopardy if that lead off liberty were ever to be deluded. Reminds me of Pope Benedict. Remember before the United Nations:

Refusal to recognize the contribution of society rooted in the religious dimension, and in the quest for the absolute, would effectively privilege an individualistic approach and would fragment the unity of the person in the community.

The philosopher Francis Beckwith agrees, “The very question of what is essential to a civil society would be itself a dispute without religious freedom.”

It was Thomas Jefferson that asked, “can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a gift from God.”

Now what do you say I roll out some exhibits to make my case that religious freedom in American history has hardly been a cause of chilling, repressive, retrograde movements, but the most liberating and nobling ones, a point well made by Dan McKanan in his recent, Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition?

Let's start with the American Revolution itself. You're probably aware of the conjectures of the towering American historians such as Sydney Ahlstrom and Winthrop Hudson. That the great awakening in the middle decades of the 18th century, that was a religious evangelical movement usually associated with the preacher Jonathan Edwards, was one of the major causes of the revolution and our independence which we will celebrate this Sunday.

The freedom of religion protecting a spot in the public square for the voices of those speaking from a faith form conscience was a blessing to our Republic, and is evident in Exhibit B, the essential role of religion in the abolition of slavery.

Now look it's soberly undeniable that every domination in America, save the Quakers, should shout a big mea culpa when it comes to our failure to take a prophetic stance against slavery, but it's equally undeniable in our history that the leaders of the people who did were mostly inspired by religious conviction.

The litany of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, Benjamin Lundy, John Greenleaf Whittier, William Collier, Theodore Dwight Weld, even the less firebreathing ones like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lyman Beecher, and William Ellery Channing, are a diverse collection to be sure, but they have one thing in common their devotion to the cause of an end to slavery flowed from a conscience formed by faith. Jacob Needleman, the author of “American Soul,” is thus right in contending that the abolition of slavery was at its core a religious crusade. If a land where loyalty to conscience and freedom of religion were not guaranteed, emancipation would have come at a much more tragically later date.

By the way, Dan McKanan, whom I referred to earlier, conjectures as well that because women often had leading roles in the abolitionist movement the slow, but steady advancement of women's equality was also a religiously animated reform movement. Let's then couple the advancement of women with the causes’ most colorful project, mainly temperance, as Exhibit C in my case that religious freedom is the battery in many of our noble causes.

Now we Catholics might quibble with designating the Temperance Movement as a religious cause, and to be sure one would not find many Catholic names on the rolls, but the fact remains that the women of the Temperance Movement saw their cause as biblical, inspired by conscience,  a conscience protected by religious liberty.

How about the crusade that is actually called the Reform Movement led in the latter years of the 19th century by the great commoner himself, William Jennings Bryan, as Exhibit D in my case. Michael Kazin entitled his masterful biography of Bryan, A Godly Hero, and demonstrates that William Jennings Bryan viewed the Prairie Reform of his age as nothing less than another great awakening. The introduction to Cajan spoke by the way is even called the romance of Jefferson and Jesus. According to a review of A Godly Hero, Teddy Roosevelt's Fair Deal, Woodrow Wilson's progressivism (Progressive Movement), and FDR's New Deal are all direct descendants of this religious crusade called the Reform Movement.

Exhibit E would be the Civil Rights Movement. Without the unfettered preaching of the gospel, without the leadership of Black southern preachers led heroically by the Reverend Martin Luther King whose brilliant letters from the Birmingham jail are perhaps one of the most cochin proof text for religious freedom, the primacy of conscience, and the proper inclusion of religion in the national conversation, and the normative role of natural law in our nation's founding the civil rights movement would never have flourished.

Exhibit F would be the peace movement of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. And exhibit G a civil rights movement today, the pro-life movement, religiously inspired.

Now I haven't even listed the Labor Movement, Urban Reform, or other noble causes, not because they have lesser importance but because I'm already in the seventh inning stretch. 

So here's point three to correct the narrative, you following. Religious freedom is enshrined not to protect the government from religion, but religion from the government!

See the Baptists in Rhode Island, the Quakers in Pennsylvania, the Congregationalists in Massachusetts, the tiny Catholic minority in Maryland during the colonial years, they didn't want any favors from the government.

These groups just wanted to basically be left alone! Left alone to exercise their faith, to worship as they had been raised, and to follow their properly formed consciences in the public square.

Ask Lord Baltimore, ask Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, whose assembly would declare freedom of conscience, to be protected from government enforcements, was the principal ground of our charter, "which freedom we still prize is the greatest happiness that we can possess in this world."

He didn't want privileges from the state. He just wanted to be left alone.

That desire spread and prevailed and became constitutionally enshrined and the historical provision that Congress shall make no law to establish religion in our first, the most cherished freedom.

For our foundational generations this was religious freedom, for religion to let it flourish unfettered by any government intrusion, not freedom from religion as today's established creed secularism would have us believe. As Charles Chaput, the former Archbishop of Philadelphia remarks, “religious freedom is never just freedom from repression, but also freedom for active discipleship; it includes the right of religious believers, leaders, and communities to engage society, and to work actively in the public square.”

Simply put, the government has no business interfering in the internal life of the soul, conscience, or church. Leave religion alone.

Once I was sitting next to Joe Califano, close adviser of LBJ, at a meal and he told me the story about President Lyndon Johnson that as the first Medicare bill was being formulated in the mid-60s some of his advisers and drafters suggested including coverage for things that some religions would consider contrary to conscience. “Stay away from that,” thundered LBJ, probably using more colorful words. “Religion is like a beehive. You look at it and protect it from a respectable distance, it'll give you great honey. You stick your hand into it and you'll get stung bad, all right.” He knew freedom of religion, leave us alone.

And finally my last concern. Throughout most of our history American culture has welcomed a religious voice in the public square. More recently normative voices in our society, I include present company accepted, the Academy, entertainment, politics, and the media insisted upon neutral, neither pro or con, faith in this sphere. We can live with either by the way, but now we witness downright antagonism to religion among the states mentioned above.

When Richard Dawkins can compare faith to smallpox, but worse he said, because it's harder to eradicate, we're in trouble. When the governor of a large state with which I am very familiar can proclaim at a press conference that God, prayer, and faith have absolutely nothing to do with our recovery from COVID and receive a standing ovation, you know our ratings have sunk folks. This fault line separating religious Americans from secularists has been recently documented in a new book; perhaps you're familiar with it, Secular Surge, that validates this hunch.

This anti- religion, this book would claim, comes from secularists who will tolerate religion as long as it's just considered some eccentric, private hobby for superstitious, unenlightened folks, limited to an hour on the Sabbath, with no claimed voice in the public square. Oh, such a course is hardly free exercise. It was Michelle Obama who pointed out our faith just isn't about showing up on Sunday, it's about what we do Monday through Friday. Or as the Jewish scholar David Novak comments, “since I am a religious member of a democratic society I can make only a religious case for human rights in good faith, secularists should make their own arguments by themselves and I'm always ready prepared to listen to them carefully since I want to live in peace with them. Nevertheless, secularists should be able to do so without denying me the right to connect my religious belief to my political advocacy, just as I should be able to do so without denying them the right to connect their nonbelief to political advocacy.”

And from this antagonism to religion that we see today I fear comes the direct intrusion of government into the very definition of the church’s ministries message and meaning.

Republicans and Democrats alike have long agreed the First Amendment's guarantee of religious liberty includes not only what goes on within the four walls of the church, but also the religiously motivated acts of service that fulfill the mission of that church. Now I'm afraid we often hear that we must leave our conscience behind when we step into the public square.

Folks thanks for paying attention. Maybe you'll agree that the four mischaracterizations of religious liberty, there may be more, that I've just tried my best to outline are in fact accurate and that correcting them provides us with a lot of homework. Dean Cole, what a gift this law school has been and what a boost it is to have you sponsor this extraordinary event. Father Hesburgh said that the Catholic university is where the church does a lot of its thinking and we need a lot of good thinking on this sacred issue of religious freedom.

Sadly, maybe you saw a prominent Catholic political leader in D.C. stated that “the church needs to get over this conscience stuff.” 

Well no we don't, and no we can't, not only as believers, as Americans.

All we want to do, along with Cecil Calvert and Roger Williams and William Penn and John Carroll, is to be left alone. All we want along with the parson patriots, Jonathan Edwards, Brigham Young, the abolitionists, William Jennings Bryan, Cesar Chavez, Dorothy Day, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and the Reverend Martin Luther King is the freedom to carry the convictions of our faith-armed conscience into our public lives.

That's the freedom that Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence, who risked his life, his family, his property, and the revolutionary cause, that's what led him to sign the Declaration as he said, to obtain religious, as well as civil liberties. Thanks for listening everybody.