Dear Mr. President: “Freedom of Religion” Actually Means Something

Dear President Obama:

I’m writing in response to some remarks you delivered at the National Prayer Breakfast on February 6. You stated, among other things, that protecting religious freedom is a matter of “national security”, and that we should “put aside labels of party and ideology, and recall what we are first: all children of a loving God; brothers and sisters called to make His work our own.”

In expounding upon these principles, you invoked some big names, quoting Abraham Lincoln for the proposition that our concern should not be whether God is on our side, but whether we are on God’s side. You also expressed your eagerness to visit the Holy Father next month at the Vatican, and lauded his “message about caring for the ‘least of these,'” which you indicated is one message that you “hope all of us heed.”

You stated that human dignity means that “each of us is ‘wonderfully made’ in the image of God,” and that “central” to this “inherent dignity of every human being” which “no earthly power can take away,” is “freedom of religion”. You framed “freedom of religion” as “the right of every person to practice their faith how they choose, to change their faith if they choose, or to practice no faith at all, and to do this free from persecution and fear.”

The problem, Mr. President, is that the definition for religious freedom which you propose is composed of words that should actually mean something. They are not placeholders for nullity. They are not supposed to exist in a vacuum or on paper for convenient reference during pandering speeches; they are, in effect, descriptors for how our republic is supposed to operate, and what rights our government is required to respect as inalienable and granted by Almighty God.

You are most certainly aware of Amendment I to the United States Constitution, which states: 

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Our Constitution, built upon the Magna Carta, was admittedly an important development in western civilization. But as you know, the formation of national governments upon written constitutions in our age is not unique. Nor is it unique that various constitutions of other countries purportedly respect religious freedom.

By way of example, the former USSR (1977) Constitution provided protections for “guaranteed freedom of conscience”:

Article 52. Citizens of the USSR are guaranteed freedom of conscience, that is, the right to profess or not to profess any religion, and to conduct religious worship or atheistic propaganda. Incitement of hostility or hatred on religious grounds is prohibited.

Also, the People’s Republic of China states that its citizens “enjoy freedom of religious belief”:

Article 36. Citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy freedom of religious belief. No state organ, public organization or individual may compel citizens to believe in, or not to believe in, any religion; nor may they discriminate against citizens who believe in, or do not believe in, any religion. The state protects normal religious activities.

Even North Korea has a constitution that purportedly promises citizens “freedom of religion”:

Article 68. Citizens shall have freedom of religion. This right shall be guaranteed by permitting the construction of religious buildings and the holding of religious ceremonies. Religion shall not be used in bringing in outside forces or in harming the state and social order.

We know that totalitarianism frequently indulges euphemism, and these examples demonstrate that there is more to true religious freedom than words in a written constitution. The difference between our system of government and those of other countries is that the words framed by the Founders and used to describe religious freedom are not supposed to be fungible. They are not supplanted with hidden or opposite meaning. 

The United States has endured as a constitutional republic for 225 years not because of some words printed on sheepskin. The strength of our system is not premised upon flowery prose or the quill and scroll, rather, it has to do with the devotion through our shared history — to ourselves and to our posterity — to giving these words effect at law. It’s what “Rule of Law” is all about.

So it is very concerning that your treatment of the meaning of “religious freedom” seems to have more to do with paying lip service to claims of constitutional protections than it does with actually ensuring that this is the case. Your administration is currently engaged in litigation to defend certain provisions of the Affordable Care Act, known as the HHS Mandate, which requires religious groups such as the Little Sisters of the Poor to pay for drugs that prevent pregnancy or cause abortion.

For Catholics who believe that human life is sacred and inviolable, commanding complicity with the HHS Mandate is a gross violation of conscience. It is, without question, a trespass upon religious freedom — seemingly directed at religious minorities — and not the type of transgression that can be characterized as de minimis or anything of the sort, because it directly deals with human life.

You told us that “the killing of the innocent is never fulfilling God’s will.” These words actually mean something, Mr. President. Please follow your own advice: “Do not claim to be wiser than you are.” The Rule of Law needs the commitment of good leaders to survive.

One thought on “Dear Mr. President: “Freedom of Religion” Actually Means Something

  1. Pingback: The Quartermaster of the Barque has some fun…

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