The following address
was given at the Stand Up for Religious Freedom Rally held in Eugene, Oregon,
on Friday, June 8, 2012.
Demonstrators march up Constitution Avenue during a "Stand Up For Religious Freedom Rally" in Washington June 8. Rallies held across the nation took aim at the government's HHS mandate that will require most employers to cover contraception and sterilization procedures in their health plans. (CNS photo/Peter Lockley)
One of my heroes is the great Russian author Aleksandr
Solzhenitsyn, who spent decades recording the horrors and history of Communism
until his death four years ago. In 1983,
he gave an address that began with this statement:
More than half a century ago, while I was
still a child, I recall hearing a number of older people offer the following
explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: “Men have
forgotten God; that's why all this has happened.”
The Communist revolution was, of course, a violent and
bloody one. Like the French Revolution, which took place in the late 1700s, it
was openly opposed to belief in God and Christianity. While the leaders of
those respective revolutions directly attacked belief in God, their paths to
power, tyranny, and terror were made easier because so many men had forgotten
The American Revolution is often compared to the
French Revolution. In fact, when I was in high school, the two were presented
as twins, as if they were essentially the same in character and intent. But
they were not.
While the leaders of the French Revolution savagely
attacked tradition and order, the American founders were deeply concerned to
preserve and respect the rich tradition inherited from the Magna Carta (1215)
and the English Bill of Rights (1689). And while the French revolutionaries
sought to violently overthrow Christianity and to establish a secular religion
with a secular calendar, the American colonists sought independence from
Britain in order to peacefully govern themselves as free men.
Many of the American founders were Christians; all of
them recognized the transcendent and rational basis for authentic freedom.
Which is why the Declaration of Independence stated: “We
hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they
are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these
are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Declaration of Independence also refers, in the opening paragraph, to “the Laws
of Nature and of Nature's God.” This past January, Pope Benedict XVI met with
American bishops in Rome. During that meeting, he made the following remark
about the founding of the United States and its founding documents:
At the heart of every culture, whether
perceived or not, is a consensus about the nature of reality and the moral
good, and thus about the conditions for human flourishing. In America, that
consensus, as enshrined in your nation’s founding documents, was grounded in a
worldview shaped not only by faith but a commitment to certain ethical
principles deriving from nature and nature’s God. Today that consensus has
eroded significantly in the face of powerful new cultural currents which are
not only directly opposed to core moral teachings of the Judeo-Christian
tradition, but increasingly hostile to Christianity as such.
We could spend hours, I think, considering the many
important points raised by the Pope in his statement. I want to highlight just
three points, especially in light of the HHS mandate, which is a direct assault
on religious freedom, political freedom, and the deeply held, principled beliefs
of millions of Americans.
The first point is this: True freedom is a gift from
God. This is true of religious freedom, political freedom, and every other
authentic freedom enjoyed by humans.
What we believe about freedom says a lot about what we
believe about truth, goodness, the meaning of life, the origin of our
existence, and the purpose of our time here on earth.
If we believe, as the American founders did, that
freedom is a gift from the Creator, we also believe truth is objective and that
human nature is oriented toward truth. We were created to know truth. Jesus
Christ, who audaciously claimed to be the way, the truth, and the life, said to
his disciples, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you
will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:31-32).
This connection between freedom and truth is
essential, especially in an age such as ours, when the love of truth is often
mocked and dismissed as old-fashioned, unsophisticated, and even bigoted.
In fact, there are two very different understandings
of freedom and truth in the United States today.
On one hand, there are those who believe truth is a
subjective thing that can evolve, change, or be completely turned inside out
depending on my passing desires, emotional whims, or ideological goals.
Freedom, in this perspective, is the ability to do
what we want, when we want, without consequence or damage to one’s conscience.
The key qualifier, in our day, is that anything goesas long as no one is hurt
and whatever is done involves consenting adults. This approach is often rooted
in passion and often leads to immorality. Consequently, this approach often
results in severe damage to the most vulnerable among us: women, children, and
But there is another approach, which says that freedom
is not the ability to do what I want,
but what I ought to do. Really
authentic freedom and true maturity is achieved when we not only do what we
ought to do, but we want to do it. This is the understanding of freedom taught,
in various but complimentary ways, by men such as Aristotle, Plato, Paul,
Augustine, and Aquinas.
It reflects the simple but profound truth that if God
does not exist and objective truth is an illusion, then anything goes. If God
is dead and truth is a lie, then everything is up for grabs. But if God does
exist and transcendent, objective truth can be known through reason and by
faith, then we have both real rights and real obligations, to both our Creator
and to our fellow man.
In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “God is
either of no importance, or of supreme importance.” There really isn’t any
The second point is this: True freedom of every type
is oriented to the good.
Although the word “freedom” is common, it isn’t always
easy to define. But freedom, most people agree, is always freedom to do something. And if it that is the
case, it must be oriented or focused on “some other good that motivates it and
makes it worth having” (The Tyranny of
Liberalism by James Kalb [ISI, 2008], 102). Freedom, in other words, is not an end in itself,
but the way to an ultimate goal.
In the Judeo-Christian heritage upon which our country
was established, “the good” is, in the end, the Creator and Savior of mankind.
In the word of Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical on the splendor of truth: “To ask about the good, in
fact, ultimately means to turn towards
God, the fullness of goodness” (Veritatis
yet, over the past several decades, we have been told that such statements
aren’t welcome in the public square. We have been told that talk of God in the
public square is intolerant, and therefore cannot be tolerated. Of course, if
you wish to sing the praises of Gaia or worship a pine tree, you’re more than
welcome to pitch a tent, preferably in a public park!
are lectured, against all good sense, that the removal of religion from the
public square is a sign of being open-minded. We are informed, without any
evidence, that the removal of religious symbols and objects from public
buildings signals an advance and improvement for civilization.
short, we are told that the Judeo-Christian heritage of this country is
offensive and embarrassing.
other words, we are told that white is black, up is down, and left is right. In
a perverse inversion so common with progressivism, those attacking faith are
called “victims,” while those standing up for their beliefs are deemed
“intolerant” and “narrow-minded” and “mean-spirited.” As my father taught me
years ago, when you stand up to a bully, don’t be surprised if he acts like a
helpless victim. After all, his goal is to intimidate and control youand he
really doesn’t care how he accomplishes his goal.
is it any surprise we are now told that the refusal of the Catholic Church and
others to compromise core beliefs and violate formed consciences is called a
“war on women” and an act of “partisan politics”?
perverse irony of these cynical statements is that they are uttered by people
who are deeply religious: their religion is politics and their god is the
all-wise, all-knowing, all-powerful secular State. The 20th-century, after all,
provides a wealth of evidence that when God is dismissed from the public
square, the State is deified, divinized, and deigned worthy of complete
ago, the famous preacher and author Archbishop Fulton Sheen wrote, “Forget the
ultimate destiny of man and a new god will be created for hima cruel god which
is the tyrannical State. When [ancient] Rome forgot its religion, it deified
its emperors; when Western Civilization forgets its Christianity, it begins to
deify the State.” This sort of modern, secular State, Sheen added, actively
seeks to control the souls of men; it “possesses man from the cradle to the
State, through the HHS mandate, wishes to bequeath contraception,
sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs in the name of “women’s health,”
using the money of those who believe such things are contrary to moral truth
and harmful to the dignity of the human person.
come a long way, and it has mostly been the wrong way.
years ago it was argued that contraceptives would bring new-found freedom, help
families and marriages, and “liberate” women. Instead, the sexual revolution
turned into a horror movie, the family unit is in shambles, countless marriages
have ended in ruin, and numerous women have learned the hard way that the
promised liberation is nothing but a lonely sham.
years ago it was argued that abortion was essential for the well-being of women
and for what some call “reproductive justice.” G.K. Chesterton once noted that
the term “birth control” is “sheer nonsense”; the same is true of “reproductive
justice,” since there is no reproduction at hand and no justice afoot. Not only
are words mangled and destroyed, so are the innocent unborn.
theologian Joyce Little has written: “When the freedom of some human beings is
upheld by bringing about the deliberate death of other, innocent human beings,
freedom itself becomes simply another form of tyranny.”
put, the HHS mandate is wrong because it violates both religious freedom and
moral truth. It implicitly holds that further expanding and encouraging a
culture of death is the best way to live the good life. It presumes that the
State is not only a final authority on matters of physical health and moral
well-being, but that the State can decide and define what is the ultimate good
for man. How can this be? I think Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would say, “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this is
government rests on virtue and truth, not on raw power and soft tyranny. Good
government respects the objective moral law and works to protect freedom. Good
government refuses to become what Pope Benedict has called the “State which
would provide everything.” Unfortunately today, in so many ways, that good
government seems to be slipping away from us.
Which brings me to my third and final point: Freedom
is a fragile gift that must be protected and defended at all times.
Here I would emphasize religious freedom, but all
freedom is a fragile gift. As concerned citizens, we each have a right and
responsibility to peacefully but firmly express our concerns, to render our
criticisms, and to give public voice to the still, small voice of our
Archbishop Sheen, who was a very wise and insightful
observer of religion and politics, said, “A religion that does not interfere
with the secular order will soon discover that the secular order will not
refrain from interfering with it.”
He wrote those words over 60 years ago (1948). What
would he say today?
Pope Benedict XVI, in talking to the American bishops
a few months ago, observed that the increasing hostility to Christianity and
the moral teachings of the Judeo-Christian tradition meansin his words“that
the entire Catholic community in the United States come to realize the grave
threats to the Church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism
which finds increasing expression in the political and cultural spheres.”
emphasized a call to action: “The seriousness of these threats needs to be
clearly appreciated at every level of ecclesial life. Of particular concern are
certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms,
the freedom of religion.”
in a reference to the HHS mandate, he spoke of “the right of conscientious
objection…with regard to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices.” He noted
how religious freedom in the United States is increasingly defined as “mere
freedom of worship without guarantees of respect for freedom of conscience.”
history tells us, again and again, that the suppression of religious freedom
leads eventually to open tyranny, the violation of basic human rights, and even
the persecution of those who refuse to worship the State. The Jewish
philosopher David Novak, in his book titled In
Defense of Religious Liberty (ISI, 2009), flatly and correctly states, “To
deprive any religious tradition its right to make moral claims on its members,
let alone make moral claims on other citizens based on an idea of natural law,
is anti-religious persecution.”
warns that a democracy must recognize that it is not divine and all-powerful,
otherwise it quickly ceases to be a democracy. “Religious freedom,” he notes,
“is something citizens bring to a
democracy. It is not only their claim upon democratic society; it is their gift
for it as well” (pp 86, 87).
greatest gifts you can give this country are lives of faith, a passion for
truth, rejection of falsehood, and commitment to the basic rights granted to
each of us by our Creator.
May we and our children and our children’s
children, through humility and fortitude and God’s grace, be able to one day
say, “Men have remembered
God; that's why all this has happened.”