TMC Religious Liberty Event Reveals Promises, Problems
The first event held by a new religious liberty institute at Thomas More College last week demonstrated the perils and promises inherent in the struggle to advance religious liberty.
The small, Catholic liberal arts college in Crestview Hills (KY) hosted two prominent voices for religious liberty at home and around the world — Louisville’s Archbishop, Joseph Kurtz and Rabbi David Saperstein — for the Institute for Religious Liberty’s inaugural speaker event, “Religious LIberty: an Inalienable Right.”
Archbishop Kurtz is the current president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. A law professor at Georgetown University and the former longtime director of the influential Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Rabbi Saperstein is the current United States Ambassador-at-Large for Religious Freedom. He is the first non-Christian to hold that office.
A crowd of about 500, about half of them students, gathered in the school’s sports/convocation center for the event held on Ash Wednesday. Though the crowd filled the parking lots, the date (dictated by the speakers’ schedules) precluded many from attending. Almost all priests, and many Catholics, were committed to Mass or prayer services that evening and many Kentucky activists, elected officials, and candidates for office were in Frankfort for a demonstration scheduled for Thursday.
Mostly Catholics (distinguishable by crosses marked with ash on their foreheads) and Jews (Hebrew Union College was the event co-sponsor, and the Ambassador is a graduate), with at least one Muslim cleric and his family present, the crowd listened intently but at times restively. The speakers, though cordial and at times impassioned, revealed fundamental contrasts in outlook and goals.
Both quoted the founding Fathers and Pope Francis, and both affirmed the commitment of their faiths and their country to religious liberty. But they differed markedly on how to secure, and even define, religious liberty, and on what constitutes incursions against it.
Amb. Saperstein began the program, concentrating on international issues. He defined religious liberty according to the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom written by Thomas Jefferson in 1786. The Act, he said, established free exercise of religion, forbid religious tests for public office, and prohibited the state from establishing a religion. Later enshrined in the Constitution, these principles mean that “your rights as a citizen do not depend on your religious belief” and should be a model for the world.
Six Principles for Upholding and Championing Religious Liberty, outlined by Archbishop Joseph Kurtz:
- The United States is built on voices of faith, and was from the beginning
- Faith may never be imposed on others
- For faith to be free, it needs to be expressed publicly – not permitted only as a special privilege
- The free expression of faith is good for the human community because faith-filled people do great things
- Religious freedom is not absolute, there are due limits necessary to preserve the public order
- Religious freedom is good for all: For my soul, for my community, and for my country
The ambassador shared stories of religious minorities oppressed, persecuted, and killed for their faith in countries around the world — slaughtered or driven from their homes by ISIS (which, like President Obama, he referred to as “ISIL”), required to join state-sponsored churches in China, even forbidden from any public religious practice until age 18 in Tajikistan.
Citing religious minorities including Yazidis, Muslims, Christians, Jews, and others, he said that oppressive governments want to discourage or destroy them as representatives of a competing power. Yet people in each of these societies refuse to give in, suffering persecution and even death for their beliefs. “Each number in a report or religious freedom represents a human being,” he said, “a person with family, hopes, and dreams.”
Archbishop Kurtz concentrated on American political attempts to curtail religious expression. The root of the word “religion,” he said, is the Latin word for “to bind.” To have a religion means to be bound by a covenant to its claims, he explained, saying that freedom of religious expression means the freedom to act on those claims in public as well as in private life.
As an example of government infringement on religious expression the Archbishop cited the Little Sisters of the Poor and their case against the US Department of Health and Human Services, which will be argued before the Supreme Court next month. As a remedy, he endorsed the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which requires that in order to force anyone to violate his or her religious beliefs a law must meet three criteria: it must about a compelling governmental interest, must not cause an undue burden to the religious believer, and must prescribe the least burdensome action possible.
Both men urged action at the local level. Ambassador Saperstein advised students to work in their own “faith communities,” neighborhoods, and colleges to end religious intolerance and speak up against “hate speech.” Archbishop Kurtz offered attendees a six-item list of principles to remember and uphold (see box).
The philosophical, religious, and political differences between the two men became apparent as they responded to each other and to questions. Ambassador Saperstein’s approach, like the current US administration’s, is largely individualistic, secular, and progressive. In response to Archbishop Kurtz’s presentation, he expressed tepid support for RFRA and suggested that the Little Sisters are not burdened unduly by the mandate they are disputing. And while voicing great concern about escalating attacks against Jews around the world and potential actions against Muslims in our country, he said nothing about why the United States government has yet to designate the murders of thousands of Christians by ISIS and groups in the Middle East as “genocide” or why the administration (himself included) will not refer to “Islamic extremism.”
The Ambassador also told the crowd to remember that “there are many paths to God” — a view he said is held by Judaism, although such a view can lead to indifferentism and a great many non-secular Jews would dispute it. He championed religious freedom as much for the benefits it brings society — order, peace, and cultural contributions — as for any claims religions make on their believers. Archbishop Kurtz, on the other hand, held to the view typically held by Catholics: that religious groups should respect each other and work together while each claims to know the truth. He also expressed a more traditional, Constitution-based view of how law and society should accommodate religious liberty and when the claims of God must accommodate the needs of just public order.
As an inaugural event, the night holds out great promise that Thomas More College can become an important voice for religious liberty. The caliber of the speakers and the large turnout, despite the unfortunate date and the Institute’s recent genesis (it was founded in December), demonstrates that Thomas More can be a draw for speakers of national and international standing, and that people find the subject compelling and important. The Institute’s potential to for growth and ability to contribute to scholarship and action is enormous.
But the presentation also showed the problems inherent in the struggle for religious liberty. The speakers did not seem to have coordinated with each other or the college, but to have prepared separate talks. Their differences in approach, in first principles, in proposed solutions, and even in what religious liberty means and looks like, make it hard to imagine how they could work together in fact, rather than on paper. The audience seemed equally divided.
How the Institute can help bridge the difference between an individualist, Enlightenment-based view of religious liberty and an institutional, Catholic outlook; how it can accommodate other religions; how and if it can influence law and public policy; and whether it can create and sustain working groups, publications, and religious liberty scholarship remain to be seen. But the task is large and the need is growing.
Case in point: When Matt Swaim, host of the Son Rise Morning Show, tweeted a photo of Sacred Heart Radio representatives (the author is one of them) with Archbishop Kurtz after the presentation, someone retweeted it with the hashtag “Catholic pedo cult.” And two days later, a Somali man named Mohammed attacked patrons and staff an Israeli man’s Columbus deli, leading to speculation that he thought the owner was Jewish.
Hani Baransi, the owner, told the Columbus Dispatch that he is an Arab Christian. “I am the minor, minor, minor of the minority,” he said. “So nobody likes me. But thank God we are in America — amen to that one.”
Photos courtesy Thomas More College.
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