‘If we want to have our First Amendment rights tomorrow, we must defend them today, wherever they may be threatened.” Carl Anderson, the head of the Knights of Columbus, is the author of your pre-election weekend reading, the new e-book: Proclaim Liberty: Notes on the Next Great Awakening in America, which puts this moment for Catholics and freedom in America in perspective. He discusses the book with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: You write, “Whether we will continue to live in a country blessed with the freedom to practice our religion free of government interference, or whether constitutional liberties will be subordinated to the demands of the state, remains to be seen.” How much does this one election mean in determining the answer to this question?
CARL ANDERSON: I think that over the past year and a half, we have seen an increasing coalition of people of faith defending the First Amendment. We have a conflict in this country between a small, militant group of secularists, and the vast majority of Americans, who, our polling has shown, broadly support the First Amendment right to religious freedom. They also support exemptions based on conscience and religious belief from objectionable laws. Obviously the HHS mandate is a very high-profile battle in this larger context. Governor Romney has promised to repeal Obamacare — which includes the mandate. President Obama has promised to keep the mandate in place. The issue of the federal government pursuing an agenda at odds with the First Amendment could end with this election, but regardless of who wins the election, we aren’t likely see an end to secularist attacks on religious liberty — at the state and local level, in the courts, etc. If we want to have our First Amendment rights tomorrow, we must defend them today, wherever they may be threatened.
LOPEZ: You write about “the ways in which Catholics — and all people of faith — ought to approach politics in order to live out their faith in public as well as in private, and to transform the divisiveness and hostility in politics we see today into a society in which every person is respected and valued — a society that Pope John Paul II has called a “Civilization of Love.” Politics can build a civilization of love? Surely you jest?
ANDERSON: Actually, if Catholics and other Christians take the lead in bringing charity to politics, if we build a more civil discourse, that would be a first step. We can’t expect politics to help further a civilization of love unless we bring love and charity to our political discussions. A civilization of love must be created across the board. It can’t exclude politics, nor can it focus on politics alone. It must transform all of society. The commandment to love our neighbor doesn’t have an exemption clause for politics. It may sound idealistic, but realistically we can begin by insisting that candidates stop the obvious misstatements of facts and character assassination that have become the trademark of certain campaigns.
LOPEZ: How can we “sincerely work together on issues where we believe one side is right and one side is wrong,” especially since we believe the other side’s position is evil in some cases?
ANDERSON: We can disagree with people — even if we believe their policies to be evil — without demeaning the person. Let us take St. Thomas More, for example. Locked in the Tower of London, awaiting execution because he would not violate his faith, he wrote a prayer for his political opponents. Now most of us would say it was evil for Henry VIII to kill a man simply for refusing to sign a document that violated his faith. But More didn’t denounce the king. Instead he died “the king’s good servant, but God’s first.” There is a lesson there for all of us.
LOPEZ: “Catholic social teaching has become increasingly ‘Gospel-centered,’” you explain. Where did it come from before John Paul II and Benedict XVI?
ANDERSON: Catholic social teaching is something that has developed over many centuries, but really began to take its current shape beginning with the encyclical Rerum Novarum issued by Pope Leo XIII in the 1890s. Throughout the last century, that social teaching has been further developed and promoted — in the pontificates of Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI of course, and also in the work of the Second Vatican Council. Catholic social teaching touches on every major issue of our day, and its themes and wisdom have been collected in a Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Church; it is a good book for every Catholic to have as a reference.
LOPEZ: Why is this Catholic stuff not mere inside baseball, but important to America?
ANDERSON: Nearly one in four Americans are now Catholic, so for a quarter of us it’s not inside baseball, and — given our numbers — how we behave affects the rest of the country. Furthermore, immigration from Latin America means that our percentage of the population is likely to increase — not decrease — over time. Catholics have a rich tradition and are an increasingly important group of voters. Catholics are increasingly in key positions in business, government, education, etc., nationwide. We literally have the opportunity to shape our country for the better, if we simply put our beliefs into practice.
LOPEZ: Does this mean Catholics have a unique responsibility to be leaders in promoting charity in civil society and policy?
ANDERSON: Unquestionably. We need to begin with charity, and we need to take strong stands on key issues. No politician or political party can win without the “Catholic vote,” so we have not just an opportunity, but also a responsibility to bring our values to bear in the public square, in how we live our lives, in the example we set, and in the policies and individuals for whom we vote. Catholics should hold politicians in both parties accountable on policies that we understand to be intrinsically evil, then debate prudential issues.
LOPEZ: You make clear that Catholics should be “following Catholic social teaching in their own lives . . . withholding our votes from candidates and propositions that oppose Church teaching on matters of intrinsic evil.” You go on to say that this “should be done in every case, in every race for political office, regardless of the party of the candidate.” You continue, “It is impossible to say what party might benefit most in the long run,” but “if Catholics take such a stand, we could literally change the face of our country’s political debates.” But in the short term, doesn’t that mean not voting for Barack Obama? Is there a danger that Catholics will become too aligned with one party?
ANDERSON: There are candidates in both parties, seeking local, state, and federal offices. Some in each party are pro-life, some in each party are not. My point should not be taken simply in the context of one race, but in the context of all of them. We should apply an objective principle, and we should do so consistently. If we make exceptions based on party, it nullifies the effectiveness of the entire proposition. We need to get back to looking at our political choices from the perspective of the bible and our Judeo-Christian values. We shouldn’t conform our values to our political preferences.
LOPEZ: Many people ask me: Why won’t more bishops say more explicitly what you just said? We both know there is a lot of anger and confusion out there among Catholics and non-Catholics on this point.
ANDERSON: I can’t speak for the bishops, but I know that many of them have been crystal clear in recent months on what it means to be a faithful citizen, especially in regard to candidates who promote intrinsic evil.
LOPEZ: In the vice-presidential debate, there were, of course, two Catholics who expressed two very different positions on abortion. Was one simply right and one simply wrong? Why can’t we say this with a solid voice as Catholics?
ANDERSON: One was right and one was wrong and we should say so. The teaching of the Catholic Church is unequivocal on the question of the intentional killing of innocent human life and anyone who doubts that has not carefully read Blessed John Paul II’s encyclical, Evangelium Vitae. I think that beginning with Mario Cuomo, we have had a number of Catholics who claimed that they could separate their conscience from their political life on the issue of abortion by claiming that they did not want to impose their view on others. But the irony of this is that nearly six in ten Americans say abortion is morally wrong and nearly eight in ten want significant restrictions on abortion, according to our polling. So in reality, these politicians are imposing a minority position on the majority of Americans as well as violating the teaching of their own Church. In effect they are saying: “I am not willing to impose my deeply held beliefs on others, but I am willing to impose someone else’s beliefs on both myself and a majority of Americans.” The logic escapes me.
LOPEZ: “Matters of intrinsic evil have historically been at odds with the sanctity of life, and often also intertwined with issues of life in this country are matters of religious liberty.” Why is that?
ANDERSON: When we think of the Declaration of Independence, we think of the Creator having endowed us with rights to life and liberty. Thomas Jefferson noted that “the God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time.” I think the reason we see these two linked is that they are intrinsically linked — and have been since the founding of this country. So when we have the most stunning and far-reaching attack on religious liberty by the federal government in our history, it is no surprise that at the heart of that attack is an attack on the right to life. God gave us life and liberty at the same time. Our government has tried to remove both rights at the same time.
LOPEZ: Who’s to say what intrinsic evil is, by the way? Can we really talk in such a way when we don’t have a consensus on so many things that we did in the past?
ANDERSON: Is a lie intrinsically evil? I think we all know the answer. And down deep, we all know right from wrong. Americans also have a much greater consensus than people think on issue after issue. Part of the reason that people believe there is such division is that Washington, the media, and even most polling make it seem that we are divided. The Knights of Columbus have undertaken an extensive polling project in the past year, and what we found is really significant. Americans aren’t divided on many issues — including abortion, religious liberty, belief in God, ethical business practices, etc. There is an enormous consensus on these issues, but to find that consensus, sometimes polling has to give people the opportunity to say more than just “yes or no” on one issue. If you ask someone simply “are you pro-life or pro-choice?” and leave it at that, you are going to end up with a split answer. But ask people when they think abortion should be allowed, and suddenly you find that the idea that we should have abortion on demand at any point during a pregnancy is held by about 10 percent of the public. It’s not a mainstream position, even if some in politics and the media present it that way.
LOPEZ: “As the Catholic population of this country increases . . . it is critical that these immigrants not feel that they must surrender their religious values at the border as the price of admission to the United States,” you write. Is it also a concern that because so many have come here from countries where religious liberty isn’t as valued as it has been here — where perhaps governments do things like issue regulations forcing individuals and churches to violate their consciences — that it’s harder to garner a marching-in-the-streets movement in response to this overreach?
ANDERSON: I think that people who come here from countries with a history of religious intolerance come here in no small part because of the freedom that America promises them. Faith is very important in many immigrant communities, and seeing their church at odds with their government may remind them of issues in their own homeland. I personally find it difficult to believe that people from a country without religious freedom, who come here and experience religious freedom, would suddenly be willing to give it up.
LOPEZ: How can we be both compassionate and responsible as a matter of security and fairness on the issue of immigration?
ANDERSON: You know, too often our political debates and the media make it sound like the only two positions possible on immigration are “amnesty” or “Arizona.” Again, it’s not true. Eight in ten Americans think laws can protect our borders and protect the rights of immigrants. Moreover, the American people have a common sense — a bipartisan solution — to immigration that seems to have eluded our elected officials. Almost three in four Americans — 74 percent — would allow illegal immigrants to remain in the United States if they learned English, paid a fine, and got a job that paid taxes. It may not be a perfect solution, but I think we might get much further in our attempts at solution with this starting point than with the extremes of “amnesty or Arizona.”
LOPEZ: We hear a lot about the “war on women” that Catholic bishops and others are supposedly waging. As the leader of the Knights, a lay Catholic, male organization, what can you bring to the conversation?
ANDERSON: The supposed war on women by those who support the right to life is a phony war. It totally misses the point of Catholic teaching as it relates to human sexuality — something I have written about extensively in my book, Called to Love.
The support and promotion of abortion on demand is a real war on women. After all, we know that in many cases women who have an abortion feel incredible grief. What’s more, we also know that in many parts of the world sex-selective abortions mean that a girl is more likely to be aborted than a boy. If we want to talk about a true war on women, that’s it. And as a result of that war, many women die before they can even be born.
LOPEZ: What does Martin Luther King Jr. have to do with natural law, and why does that matter?
ANDERSON: Reverend King — a Protestant minister — in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” cites St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. He points out that “an unjust law is no law at all.” This matters precisely because it is consistent with our Declaration of Independence and our history as a country. We have always understood that rights come from God — not from the state. We have always understood that it is precisely because our rights come from God that they cannot be compromised. This is why Reverend King’s point is so fundamentally important. He embraced the best of the American tradition, and with it, made America even better.
LOPEZ: Why does the memorial to Reverend King in Washington, D.C., bug you so much?
ANDERSON: It is nothing short of remarkable that the builders of that monument could take a minister — a man whose entire movement was informed by faith — and strip it of any reference to God or faith. It does a great injustice to our national memory of Reverend King. Alexander Solzhenitsyn called such revisionist history the “amputation of the national memory.” When this happens, Solzhenitsyn said, the effect was that the country was “deprived of its spiritual unity.”
LOPEZ: You describe a “new hostility to the role of religious institutions in American life.” How did we get here?
ANDERSON: We got here because we have forgotten our roots. We have forgotten what made our country great. Last year on President’s Day, the Knights ran a commercial nationally that featured a series of quotes on the importance of religion and God to the United States by presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Reagan. Many people reacted positively. But some people — as a result of the amputation of memory — actually accused us of taking these famous quotes out of context. They simply couldn’t believe that such a link with God and religious principles ran throughout the history of our country. A small, intolerant group of secularists and atheists has succeeded in driving God out of our schools, out of much of the media, out of public life. They have done this despite the fact that our polling shows that Americans overwhelmingly believe in God and see traditional values — more than anything else, including the outcome of the next election — as the key to the future of this country.
LOPEZ: How do we “constructively engage secularism”? Particularly when it’s so hostile to religion! “We are in a war,” you quote HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius as explaining. And then you write: “I sincerely hope we can put away such partisan rhetoric.” How can religion, then, not be at war with secularism?
ANDERSON: The Church is often described as a “sign of contradiction.” It will always be in opposition to secularism, but that does not mean that it is at war with secularists. It must always be our hope that one day they will join us — if not here, then in heaven.
It is not our place as people of faith to declare a political war. Others may declare war on us; indeed, they have done so, but that doesn’t mean we must respond with equally overheated rhetoric. In fact, we must show the better way. We can disagree — but politely. We can vigorously defend our freedom, but we must never succumb to hatred, or anything less than love of those who oppose us politically. We need to be the ones who lead by example.
LOPEZ: What gives you confidence that we are on the verge of a “Great Awakening”?
ANDERSON: It is clear that Americans have a certain unity that is often overlooked. It is also clear that Americans consider themselves people of faith. Consider this: A couple of years ago, we asked people what the best hope for our country’s future was. Forty-five percent said “traditional values.” That was more than twice as many as the 18 percent who chose the next-closest answer “a better business environment.” Only 11 percent said the next election.
LOPEZ: What can defenders of religious liberty learn from the civil-rights movement?
ANDERSON: The civil-rights movement was successful because it was in the right, and it was based on the Judeo-Christian principles that informed the history of this country and the lives of most Americans. The Judeo-Christian arguments so powerful then — for instance that all are created equal by their creator — are equally powerful in defense of religious liberty. We are no less American because we are people of faith. If anything, we are far closer to the great values that have shaped this country than secularists are. Americans are both a religious people and a people committed to the First Amendment. We should remember that. And we should, like those in the civil-rights movement, never be afraid to stand up for the truth, and to declare that faithful Americans are entitled to rights and protections guaranteed us not only by our Constitution, but, even more important, by God.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.