Mary Ann Glendon: “religious freedom is well on its way to becoming a second-class right…”

President of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences outlines four developments that
seem to point to declining support for religious freedom

Mary Ann Glendon, the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard University and President of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences (she is also former Ambassador of the United States to the Holy See Member and a member of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom), recently gave the 2015 Cardinal Egan Lecture. Titled “Religious Freedom: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” [PDF], Glendon’s address provides an overview of religion freedom in the U.S., noting the shifts that began to take place via the courts in the 1940s. She then makes this remark:

Moving now to the state of religious freedom in the U.S. today, I have to begin by saying how thankful I am every time I return from a USCIRF trip to a country where religious minorities live in daily fear of violent persecution. My renewed appreciation for the freedoms we enjoy here at home, however, comes with increasing concern that we are letting something precious slip away.

To put it starkly: I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that religious freedom is well on its way to becoming a second-class right—in the sense that it is being demoted from the status of a fundamental right to just one of many competing interests—one that can all too easily be trumped by other rights, claims, and interests.

It pains me to say this, because I am old enough to remember the vital role that religion once played in our public life. When I became active in the civil rights movement as a young lawyer in the 1960s, the downgrading of religious freedom was a development I could not have imagined. But with the passage of time, many people have forgotten how much of the energy that fueled the drive to put an end to the shame of segregation in this country—and how much of the determination that sustained it—sprang directly from religious conviction.

The public ministry of Martin Luther King galvanized people who had never given much thought to how many opportunities were denied to many of our fellow Americans on the basis of race. Yet how many people today know that during his Birmingham campaign, Rev. King required every participant to sign a pledge promising to “meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus”? How many Catholics know that the courageous Archbishop of New Orleans, Joseph Rummel, stood up to four powerful Louisiana political leaders and excommunicated them for opposing integration of the schools?

The positive role of religion in public life at that time was so evident, so palpable, that I would have been astonished if anyone had told me that someday expanded definitions of civil rights would come into sharp conflict with religious freedoms. Yet that day is here. A telling sign is that Rev. King is now commonly referred to as Dr. King. And the religious freedoms that America once took for granted are now under severe challenge from a variety of directions.

What seems to me especially ominous is the mounting evidence that less value is being attached to religion and religious freedom in the very places where one might have expected it to be more secure—namely, in the minds and hearts of citizens in liberal democracies. I would be glad to be persuaded that this concern is exaggerated. (Perhaps you will tell me that I need to get out of the People’s Republic of Cambridge more often.) But it seems to me that there are too many signs to ignore that concrete commitment to the protection of religious freedom is weakening, both internationally and here at home

Ironically, this weakening of support is occurring just at a time when violent religious persecution is roiling much of the world. Even if you went back to the Roman Empire, you would not find persecution of Christians on a scale comparable to what our brothers and sisters are experiencing today, with an estimated 100,000 being killed every year, not to mention those who are being forced to flee their homes and countries.

Although we here in the United States are fortunate by comparison, no one who follows the news can doubt that there is a rocky road ahead for religious believers who dissent from reigning secular orthodoxies.

Glendon then goes on to examine “four developments that seem to point to declining support—both official and social—for the capacious concept of religious freedom that is enshrined in our First Amendment…” You can read her entire address on the site.

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About Carl E. Olson 1233 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.