October 4, 2006

Theocrats, Moral Relativism & the Myth of Religious Tolerance, Part V: Recovering the Meaning and Implications of Religious Freedom

Donald B. Hawthorne

The previous posting in this series noted how moral relativism leads to words losing their meaning, thereby impoverishing the public discourse and making genuine consensus on important issues difficult, if not impossible. It also suggested that moral recovery was possible by calling for it with direct language.

As a first step toward eliminating that lack of meaning, the same posting identified four crucial questions and addressed the first question about whether moral truths exist and belong in the public square.

The second question noted that there is a lack of agreement on the meaning of religious freedom and reason.

It is impossible to have a reasoned public discourse over the proper role of religion in the public square if we do not share a common understanding about the meaning of religious freedom. The impact of no common ground means the public discourse often descends into an ahistorical mumbo-jumbo from secular left fundamentalists warning about the alleged threat from theocrats. The left's actions have the effect of stripping the public square of religious practices or habits as attempts are made to block religious or religion-inspired people and practices from playing any role whatsoever in the public square. These behaviors have created a backlash and new assertiveness from the religious right in recent times.

The purpose of this posting is to offer a broad definition of religious freedom, which can be found in the Extended Entry below, and reflect on some of its implications for all of us.

After reading the thoughts below on the meaning of religious freedom, several striking thoughts arise from the document:

First, it provides greater insight into the higher purpose that is at the heart of why religious freedom is so important: With the personal responsibility and free will that arise from the dignity of man is the moral obligation and sense of duty to pursue truth and abide by it as it becomes known. That provides a challenge to each of us: Do we accept as our personal duty, the obligation to pursue truth and abide by it as we achieve new understandings? (Note: Commitment to that course of action does not require a particular religious belief. It does require a dedication to being men and women of virtue.)

Second, there are profound implications that follow once that pursuit is engaged: Frequently our public discourse is an unpleasant mixture of some people questioning whether there is any truth at all while others are presenting beliefs as if they have already reached truth in its final form. It is these people - called fundamentalists of the left and right, respectively - who often dominate the public debate to our society's detriment. In contrast, the alternative view expressed below suggests the practice of religious freedom is a process with milestones achieved along the way - but not an end. That concept is completely ignored by secular left fundamentalists who prefer to rely on the use of scare tactics that equate any religious belief with religious fanaticism in order to achieve a near ban on religious expression in the public square. Yet an ongoing process also implies a lack of final closure in understanding truth, which should result in a greater spirit of humility accompanying the ongoing pursuit by religious people.

These conclusions lead us back to another point from the previous posting: The dominant struggle in our society today is over the meaning of freedom, in this case understanding the implications of religious freedom in our society. Once we have this freedom, how do we pursue truth and talk constructively to each other about it given that we live in a pluralistic society made up of people with differing religious beliefs?

Let's assume most people share a common goal of living together successfully and with meaning in a civil society. For that to happen, we have to be able to talk to each other, to have a substantive discourse. But it cannot be based upon the requirements that the existence of moral truths be denied, that religious beliefs be excluded from the public square, or that everyone be required to hold similar religious beliefs.

George Weigel put this issue in perspective when he wrote about Pope John Paul II:

Building the free society certainly involves getting the institutions right; beyond that, however, freedom's future depends on men and women of virtue, capable of knowing, and choosing, the genuinely good.

That is why John Paul relentlessly preached genuine tolerance: not the tolerance of indifference, as if differences over the good didn't matter, but the real tolerance of differences engaged, explored, and debated within the bond of a profound respect for the humanity of the other...

John Paul II was teaching a crucial lesson about the future of freedom: Universal empathy comes through, not around, particular convictions...

It is in this context that a discussion about the meaning of "reason" becomes important as reason offers a tool to enable a pluralistic society to have substantive discourse about what belongs in our public square. That discussion of reason shall be the topic of the next posting in this series.

Earlier postings in this series can be found here:

Part I: The Difference Between Religious Freedom and Religious Tolerance
Part II: Are We Hostile Toward or Encouraging Religious Belief?
Part III: Consequences of Excluding Religion from the Public Square
Part IV: Moral Recovery via Rediscovering the Meaning of Words


Let's begin with a general definition of religious freedom:

…[Religious] freedom means that all men are to be immune from coercion on the part of individuals or of social groups and of any human power, in such ways that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs, whether privately or publicly, whether alone or in association with others, within due limits.

It is the dignity of each human being, discovered by faith or reason, which is why religious freedom is important:

…the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person as this dignity is known through the revealed word of God and by reason itself…whose exigencies have come to be are fully known to human reason through centuries of experience...

This underlying dignity of humans is based on several factors:

…in accordance with their dignity as persons-that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and therefore privileged to bear personal responsibility…

With that personal responsibility and free will comes a moral obligation to seek the truth and abide by it once it is known:

…that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth...

...every man has the duty, and therefore the right, to seek the truth in matters religious in order that he may with prudence form for himself right and true judgments of conscience...

What is the best way to conduct this search for truth, to do it in a way that builds understanding in a civil society?

Truth, however, is to be sought after in a manner proper to the dignity of the human person and his social nature. The inquiry is to be free, carried on with the aid of teaching or instruction, communication and dialogue, in the course of which men explain to one another the truth they have discovered, or think they have discovered, in order thus to assist one another in the quest for truth.

(This approach raises a related issue about the role of reason, especially for those who do not hold explicit religious beliefs. A subsequent posting will explore that important issue further.)

The discovery of truths takes on significance when the truths then form the basis for acts of conscience:

Moreover, as the truth is discovered, it is by a personal assent that men are to adhere to it.

On his part, man perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of the divine law through the mediation of conscience...It follows that he is not to be forced to act in manner contrary to his conscience. Nor, on the other hand, is he to be restrained from acting in accordance with his conscience, especially in matters religious...

Yet, the social nature of man affects how religious beliefs are expressed, that it is important that there be both public and private expressions:

The social nature of man, however, itself requires that he should give external expression to his internal acts of religion: that he should share with others in matters religious; that he should profess his religion in community. Injury therefore is done to the human person and to the very order established by God for human life, if the free exercise of religion is denied in society, provided just public order is observed.

...Government therefore ought indeed to take account of the religious life of the citizenry and show it favor, since the function of government is to make provision for the common welfare. However, it would clearly transgress the limits set to its power, were it to presume to command or inhibit acts that are religious.

The need to profess religious beliefs in a community means that an important part of the meaning of religious freedom involves clearly defining the freedom of religious communities themselves:

The freedom or immunity from coercion in matters religious which is the endowment of persons as individuals is also to be recognized as their right when they act in community. Religious communities are a requirement of the social nature both of man and of religion itself...

Provided the just demands of public order are observed, religious communities rightfully claim freedom in order that they may govern themselves according to their own norms, honor the Supreme Being in public worship, assist their members in the practice of the religious life, strengthen them by instruction, and promote institutions in which they may join together for the purpose of ordering their own lives in accordance with their religious principles.

Religious communities also have the right not to be hindered, either by legal measures or by administrative action on the part of government...

Religious communities also have the right not to be hindered in their public teaching and witness to their faith, whether by the spoken or by the written word.

Here are some suggestions on proper ways to introduce religious practices:

However, in spreading religious faith and in introducing religious practices everyone ought at all times to refrain from any manner of action which might seem to carry a hint of coercion or of a kind of persuasion that would be dishonorable or unworthy, especially when dealing with poor or uneducated people...

In addition, it comes within the meaning of religious freedom that religious communities should not be prohibited from freely undertaking to show the special value of their doctrine in what concerns the organization of society and the inspiration of the whole of human activity. Finally, the social nature of man and the very nature of religion afford the foundation of the right of men freely to hold meetings and to establish educational, cultural, charitable and social organizations, under the impulse of their own religious sense.

As part of the overall definition of religious freedom, the family plays an important role:

The family, since it is a society in its own original right, has the right freely to live its own domestic religious life under the guidance of parents. Parents, moreover, have the right to determine, in accordance with their own religious beliefs, the kind of religious education that their children are to receive. Government, in consequence, must acknowledge the right of parents to make a genuinely free choice of schools and of other means of education, and the use of this freedom of choice is not to be made a reason for imposing unjust burdens on parents, whether directly or indirectly. Besides, the right of parents are violated, if their children are forced to attend lessons or instructions which are not in agreement with their religious beliefs, or if a single system of education, from which all religious formation is excluded, is imposed upon all.

We all own the challenge of ensuring religious freedom is present across a society:

...the care of the right to religious freedom devolves upon the whole citizenry, upon social groups, upon government, and upon the Church and other religious communities, in virtue of the duty of all toward the common welfare, and in the manner proper to each.

Government also has an important role in effecting religious freedom in a society:

The protection and promotion of the inviolable rights of man ranks among the essential duties of government. Therefore government is to assume the safeguard of the religious freedom of all its citizens, in an effective manner, by just laws and by other appropriate means.

Government is also to help create conditions favorable to the fostering of religious life, in order that the people may be truly enabled to exercise their religious rights and to fulfill their religious duties, and also in order that society itself may profit by the moral qualities of justice and peace which have their origin in men's faithfulness to God and to His holy will...

...government is to see to it that equality of citizens before the law, which is itself an element of the common good, is never violated, whether openly or covertly, for religious reasons. Nor is there to be discrimination among citizens...

Another important issue is the manner in which religious freedom is exercised and its impact on others in the community:

The right to religious freedom is exercised in human society: hence its exercise is subject to certain regulatory norms. In the use of all freedoms the moral principle of personal and social responsibility is to be observed. In the exercise of their rights, individual men and social groups are bound by the moral law to have respect both for the rights of others and for their own duties toward others and for the common welfare of all. Men are to deal with their fellows in justice and civility.

Furthermore, society has the right to defend itself against possible abuses committed on the pretext of freedom of religion. It is the special duty of government to provide this protection. However, government is not to act in an arbitrary fashion or in an unfair spirit of partisanship. Its action is to be controlled by juridical norms which are in conformity with the objective moral order. These norms arise out of the need for the effective safeguard of the rights of all citizens and for the peaceful settlement of conflicts of rights, also out of the need for an adequate care of genuine public peace, which comes about when men live together in good order and in true justice, and finally out of the need for a proper guardianship of public morality.

These matters constitute the basic component of the common welfare: they are what is meant by public order...

The decision to embrace religious belief is a personal one, the exercise of which is an expression of freedom:

…man's response to God in faith must be free: no one therefore is to be forced to embrace the Christian faith against his own will...The act of faith is of its very nature a free act...

Here is a summary overview thought:

A sense of the dignity of the human person has been impressing itself more and more deeply on the consciousness of contemporary man and the demand is increasingly made that men should act on their own judgment, enjoying and making use of a responsible freedom, not driven by coercion but motivated by a sense of duty. The demand is likewise made that constitutional limits should be set to the powers of government, in order that there may be no encroachment on the rightful freedom of the person and of associations. This demand for freedom in human society chiefly regards the quest for the values proper to the human spirit. It regards, in the first place, the free exercise of religion in society...

So where do these valuable thoughts come from? The Vatican II statement on Religious Freedom. It is a document which provides everyone with a broad framework for thinking about all facets of religious freedom, bringing meaning to many words and, thereby, enriching the public discourse.

Comments, although monitored, are not necessarily representative of the views Anchor Rising's contributors or approved by them. We reserve the right to delete or modify comments for any reason.

Don, this one and other thoughtful series presented on this blog are what sets it apart from many others. The frenzied back and forth from both sides is fun, but the free and honest pursuit of truth and goodness is what will make the world a better place.

Lately I've been contemplating my role in political cyberspace and have concluded that, while I have had a great deal of fun, I have accomplished very little.

The freedom we have is awesome. Unlike those who condemn our freedom, we are able to choose our path from among the plethora of good and bad choices freedom offers. When we choose to do good or be good, I believe we are all the more virtuous for having done so freely.

I'm choosing to be more thoughtful and more truth-seeking on these blogs.

My other monikers shall be retired.

Posted by: George at October 5, 2006 12:49 PM

I agree wholeheartedly that moral relativism leads to words losing their meaning.

Take "torture" for instance. It's apparently lost all meaning for the moral relativists in the White House.

When Saddam Hussein invaded a sovreign nation, it was an offense against the world community. We we invade a sovreign nation, it's necessary to root out WMD....spread democracy...transform the Middle East...(supply rationale-du-jour here).

Torture was wrong when Saddam Hussein does it. When we do it, it becomes frat-boy hijinks. When done by the Nazis, it's torture. When done by us, it's "intense interrogation."

And, for the record, I am not playing the Nazi card. I'm simply commenting on a notable parallel. IMHO, if you don't want it done to Americans, it's torture.

Posted by: klaus at October 5, 2006 7:16 PM


When you use the word Nazi you play the Nazi card. Denial is futile.

When you deny playing the Nazi card you lie.

When you lie openly on the blog you look like a fool.

When you lie openly on the blog and tell us you are not lying you are calling us fools.

We are not fools.

I would recommend that before you post here again you write your post, print it, sleep on it, show it to a trusted mentor who will be honest with you, then follow his or her advice and throw the paper away.

J Mahn

Posted by: Joe Mahn at October 7, 2006 10:48 AM

Mr. Hawthorne:

I just wanted to thank you for your thoughtful and thought provoking topic. There was quite a dialog on Part III with 41 posts.

Unfortunately this may not be the best channel for this important topic.

J Mahn

Posted by: Joe Mahn at October 10, 2006 7:57 PM