Rethinking Religious Liberty

Why religious liberty cannot mean the right to believe whatever we want.

In a previous article, “The Puzzle of Religious Liberty,” I brought before readers a rather vexing quandary. Somehow our hearty affirmation of religious liberty—which would seem to be a good thing—ends up producing a secular state that uses its powers to enforce a secular agenda that contradicts our religious liberty.

How does it happen? In order to limit governmental interference in our religion, we declare that we each have a right to define our own particular view about God and how we should—or if we should—worship Him. Or Her. Or It.

But the practical result of our each individually exercising this right is, as would be expected, to multiply religious diversity. Catholics make up about a quarter of the US population, and Protestants about double that, but Protestantism itself is divided into myriad significantly distinct denominations. If you doubt that, go to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, and start clicking through the divisions and subdivisions of Evangelical Protestant Churches or Mainline Protestant Churches.

The greater the diversity, the greater the need for particular religious believers or groups of like-minded believers to be protected from the imposition of others’ beliefs upon them. Add to the Christian mix Jews, Orthodox, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus, and the substantial differences in core beliefs become even greater.

In legal terms, the greater the religious diversity, the greater the desire to keep any one religious view from becoming established, i.e., from using the powers of the state to impose its particular doctrines. Hence, the greater power given to the government to ensure that no one’s religious beliefs are represented by the government. In America, the result has been the use of government power to subtract particular religious beliefs from public, political view.

The state-sponsored subtraction began in earnest after the landmark Supreme Court case Everson v. Board of Education (1947), which declared that the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause demanded the erection of “a wall of separation between church and state.”  This wall, so it was claimed, is necessary to keep any one church from commandeering the state, so that all may enjoy religious liberty.

Here comes the puzzle of religious liberty, at least as it has played out for us. The subtraction of beliefs leaves, as a remainder, “no one’s religious beliefs,” or more accurately, non-belief. Non-belief thereby becomes the established state worldview. Secularism takes the place of an established religion.

Secularism is not neutral. It is a quite definite worldview, with its own version of the cosmos and the place of human beings in it, one in which God has been subtracted. The state-sponsored subtraction of religious beliefs in the name of religious freedom ends up establishing a worldview based upon the subtraction of God from the cosmos.

Freedom of religion ends up yielding a state defined by secularists bent on imposing freedom from religion. The state turns against religion, and becomes, increasingly, a violator of religious freedom rather than its protector. Crosses are taken down. Bibles are banned from schools. Public prayers are forbidden. Crèches are removed from public places. Marriage is forcibly redefined. Mandates are issued (such as the HHS mandate requiring Catholic entities to provide contraceptives, abortifacients, and sterilization in their insurance coverage). The public square is secularized, and secular morality is imposed from above.

Pope Benedict’s warning about secularism

Pope Benedict, in his address to the American bishops in their ad limina pilgrimage to Rome in 2012, warned of the very real dangers of radical secularism, noting its increasing tendency to violate religious liberty:

It is imperative 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. 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 way, Pope Benedict’s remarks capture the puzzle of religious liberty. The state’s forcible subtraction of any definite belief ends up creating a secular state hostile to religion.

For radical secularists, this is a boon. Religion is either eliminated or privatized. In either case, it is rendered politically and culturally inconsequential. But for Christians, this is very serious problem, and requires of us a rethinking of what we mean—and even more, what we should mean—by religious liberty.

The Church’s Declaration of Religious Freedom

As a Catholic, I cannot attempt to rethink religious liberty without consulting the Second Vatican Council’s Dignitatis Humanae, subtitled (if we might call it that) “On the Right of the Person and of Communities to Social and Civil Freedom in Matters Religious.”

But “consult” is the wrong word. The Council’s statements are binding on me as a Catholic. As Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium makes clear, “Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent” (LG, 25).

Whatever this Declaration of Religious Freedom might mean, it cannot mean my freedom to dissent from the Council’s pronouncements about religious freedom. And this is what Dignitatis Humanae has to say:

This Vatican Council declares that the human person has a right to religious freedom. This 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 wise 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.

The council further declares that 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.  This right of the human person to religious freedom is to be recognized in the constitutional law whereby society is governed and thus it is to become a civil right.

But here’s the tricky part: “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.”

Freedom’s ultimate roots

According to the Catechism, “The dignity of the human person is rooted in his creation in the image and likeness of God,” an obvious reference to Genesis 1:26-27.  Moreover, “The divine image is present in every man” (CCC, 1700-1702). Human reason is able to grasp this truth insofar as it affirms that we are endowed with a “spiritual and immortal soul,” which is the source of man’s capacity to reason. “By his reason, he is capable of understanding the order of things established by the Creator. By free will, he is capable of directing himself toward his true good.”

So it is that “[b]y virtue of his soul and his spiritual powers of intellect and will, man is endowed with freedom, an ‘outstanding manifestation of the divine image’” (CCC, 1702-1705). That’s where we ultimately get our freedom.

In sum, the Church’s assertion of the right to religious freedom is rooted in, has its foundation in, the dignity of the human person. This dignity is itself defined in terms of a very specific anthropology: one which assumes that human beings are distinct creatures endowed with immaterial, immortal souls who, by virtue of their souls, are capable of reason and free will.

The freedom to deny the roots of freedom?

But radical secularism has its own anthropology, one rooted in reductionist materialism that denies the existence God, the immaterial soul, and all too often the power of reason and the existence of free will.

That raises the obvious but generally overlooked question. Does the right to religious liberty include the freedom to believe in a worldview (religious, quasi-religious, or otherwise) that undermines the dignity of the person, upon which the right to religious freedom rests?

Does the right include the right to think that religion is bunk, and harmful bunk at that, and should be eliminated by force, and failing that, walled out of the public square? Does it include the right to believe that human beings are no different, in dignity, from a rabbit, squirrel, or amoeba? The right to believe that human beings have no immortal soul, and hence no free will, but are, in fact, material epiphenomena of their genes? The right to believe that morality is completely relative, and should be defined solely by each person’s goal of maximizing physical pleasure and avoiding physical pain?

In short, do we have a right to believe in a secular worldview, the worldview espoused by radical secularism which, as Pope Benedict has warned, is increasingly engaged in attacking religious liberty? Is that what Dignitatis Humanae meant by declaring the right to religious liberty?

The right to define the universe?

It’s more difficult to answer that question than one might suppose, and goes beyond the scope of this article to deal with adequately. Perhaps we can make a good beginning by seeing what it might mean to affirm that we have the right to believe anything.

In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Catholic justice Anthony Kennedy uttered the infamous declaration, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life. Beliefs about these matters could not define the attributes of personhood were they formed under compulsion of the State.”

That is the ultimate declaration of liberty, and hence the most expansive definition of the right to believe—in this case, the right to believe anything. It is no accident that this account of “liberty,” “right,” and “belief” was uttered in the name of the protection of the right to abortion. The right to believe anything means the right to believe anything morally.

Did Kennedy, a Catholic, get liberty right? Is that what Kennedy thought was intended by Dignitatis Humanae?

This question is directly relevant to our attempt to rethink religious liberty. In Kennedy’s version of liberty, the most expansive view of liberty imaginable, the right to believe whatever you want about God, about religion, is a kind of subset of “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

If we have such a right, or if the state thinks we have such a right, then the powers of the state must be harnessed to protect it. That makes the state the protector and enforcer of the most radical kind of relativism.

The dictatorship of relativism

And that brings forth the possibility of what Pope Benedict aptly called a “dictatorship of relativism.”  In his opening remarks to the conclave in 2005 that would end up electing him to the papacy, then-Cardinal Ratzinger warned, “We are moving toward a dictatorship of relativism which does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.”

This dictatorship of relativism is, as the Pope rightly noted, not neutral toward Christianity, but actively in opposition. It is also opposed to religious freedom because it destroys the spiritual, intellectual, and moral truths that form the foundation of religious freedom.

Simply put, relativism cannot be the defining view of any society without destroying it. As Pope Benedict said to the American bishops in the ad limina address I’ve already quoted,

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.

In other words, radical secularism destroys religious liberty by eroding “ethical principles deriving from nature and nature’s God.” The inherent relativism also leads to the destruction of the human person, as Pope Benedict made clear in the address to the conclave:

When a culture attempts to suppress the dimension of ultimate mystery, and to close the doors to transcendent truth, it inevitably becomes impoverished and falls prey, as the late Pope John Paul II so clearly saw, to reductionist and totalitarian readings of the human person and the nature of society.

Rethinking Religious Liberty 101

I will not pretend that, in this short article, I’ve provided the last word in rethinking religious liberty, but perhaps it is a worthy beginning, a very short “101 Course”—maybe just the first lecture.

What we have seen, I hope, is what religious liberty cannot mean—at least for Catholics. It cannot mean the right to believe whatever you want. Religious liberty as a right is, by the Church’s account, rooted in a definite understanding of the human person, one that, if denied, actually undermines religious liberty, and all too easily leads to a dictatorship of relativism or even to political totalitarianism.

Moreover, if radical secularism is so inclined to turn against Christianity—especially if it gains privileged access to state power—then somehow the right to believe anything, including to hold the tenets of radical secularism, must be questioned rather than assumed.

As Pope Benedict warned in his Light of the World, radical secularism has become a kind of “abstract, negative religion” which “is being made into a tyrannical standard that everyone must follow.” To this we may add, that negative religion of radical secularism should not be the established religion of the state, i.e., the established worldview that polices the public square. That would spell the end of religious liberty.

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About Benjamin Wiker 15 Articles
Benjamin Wiker, Ph.D. is Professor of Political Science and Senior Fellow of the Veritas Center at Franciscan University. His newest book is In Defense of Nature: the Catholic Unity of Environmental, Economic, and Moral Ecology . His website is