The Corner

Fighting for Freedom at Georgetown

This morning at Georgetown University, an alum returns to what has become “the epicenter of the debate” over religious liberty and the Department of Health and Human Services contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs mandate. Representative Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska, who has a master’s degree in public policy from Georgetown, returns with fellow Republican colleagues Ann Marie Buerkle, Diane Black, and Democrat Dan Lipinski, to discuss the implications of what has happened here.

Should the individual mandate be struck down this morning by the Supreme Court, this HHS mandate will still remain “an affront to conscience” and an “erosion of religious liberty,” as Fortenberry puts it. And, whatever happens in the Court today, the HHS-mandate debate exposes a “deeply serious philosophical divide” in America today about “the limits of government,” Fortenberry tells me.

Fortenberry is the lead sponsor of a conscience-protection bill in the House.

The host of today’s Georgetown forum, which will be happening at the same time as the Supreme Court hands down their decision this morning, is Tom Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs there. Farr, who is also author of World of Faith and Freedom: Why International Religious Liberty Is Vital to American National Security, talks about some of the threats here and abroad in advance of the forum.


KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: The bulk of the Fortnight for Freedom I’ve seen is education and gratitude and prayers. What does this all have to do with Christians in Nigeria?

TOM FARR: For believers, of course, prayer is necessary to petition God for his assistance. Gratitude also seems appropriate, given the fact that religious freedom remains embedded in American law and culture, even if it’s under assault by some of our political elites.

But the Fortnight for Freedom — whether it consists of prayer or public action — would not be necessary if it were not for the fact that many Catholics and others believe that religious freedom is at grave risk in the United States and abroad.

If they are right — and I believe they are — this goes a long way toward explaining why the United States has done so little for persecuted Christians in Nigeria or, for that matter, anywhere else. It is not that American foreign policy is indifferent to the suffering of Christians or other minorities. It is that our elites do not discern any link between the humanitarian tragedy of religious persecution and vital American interests abroad. They make plenty of speeches decrying persecution, but do very little to develop policy strategies to combat it.#more#


LOPEZ: You’re hosting a forum today on conscience and Jeff Fortenberry’s legislation. What about his approach is important?

FARR: His bill, which has been endorsed by members of both parties, is designed to ensure that no health-care law can override the rights of conscience which have played so large a role in American history. Even if the Court overrides the health-care law tomorrow, and thereby removes the issue of the HHS mandate from the table for the moment, the decision will probably not touch the reasoning behind the mandate, i.e., that “protected” religious institutions must be narrowly defined as those that serve only their own believers, and that “unprotected” religious organizations (hospitals, colleges, soup kitchens and, arguably, your average church or parish) must either get into line — provide the mandated coverage — or get out of business.


LOPEZ: The Senate rejected it though. What would you say to those who find the “war on women” attacks compelling? To those making the “war on women” claims about conscience protection and opposition to the HHS mandate?

FARR: I would ask them to consider that no one is blocking their access to contraception, abortifacients, or sterilizations, each of which is widely available. Most who oppose the Catholic Church’s position have some sacred religious beliefs that are, or ought to be, protected by the First Amendment or the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. If their anger at the Church results in the state overriding Catholic teachings on this issue, they are clearing the way for the state to attack their beliefs in the future.

As for a “war on women,” this canard is an insult to the millions of women, Catholic and otherwise, who act in conformance with Church teachings. It is also an insult to a Church that views women as utterly equal to men in the eyes of the God who created them both.


LOPEZ: What does the administration mean by insisting that it has accommodated religious liberty? What does redefining religious liberty mean at home and abroad?

FARR: The administration’s positions in Hosanna Tabor and the HHS mandate have been that religious freedom is a very limited right that consists primarily of the right to worship inside a church, synagogue, mosque, or temple. By this reading, religious freedom does not extend to the civil sphere and thus does not protect religious associations that see themselves as living out their faith in public life. Further, this reading does not appear to protect the expression of religiously informed arguments in public life, especially if those arguments derive from traditional understandings of marriage.

This is a dangerous reduction of the longstanding American understanding of “religious freedom in full,” which includes the public, as well as the private, manifestations of religion. Recall that Washington, in his farewell address to the nation, said that democracy could not stand without religious judgments contending in public life. The Obama administration’s reading turns that view on its head.

In addition to the dangers this approach yields at home, it also hamstrings American foreign policy in its attempts to advance religious freedom abroad. Foreign religious actors from Russia to India to Egypt will not listen to us if they believe that what we are selling is an attempt to move religion to the private, irrelevant margins of public life. In short, John Rawls provides no basis for U.S. international religious freedom policy.


LOPEZ: The world over, why is religious freedom so important?

FARR: It is important both in humanitarian and strategic terms.

In 2009 and 2011, the Pew Research Center presented two comprehensive reports that measured, in every country of the world, government restrictions on religion and social hostilities toward religion. The two reports covered the years 2006 to mid-2009.

The first report revealed a profoundly disturbing statistic: 70 percent of the world’s population lives in countries in which religious freedom is either highly or very highly restricted, either by governments or private actors. That is almost three out of four human beings on the planet.

Most of those people live in 66 countries. Of those, most are either Muslim-majority nations, Communist regimes such as China, North Korea, Cuba, and Vietnam, or large non-Muslim states such as India, Burma, and Russia.

The second report demonstrated that the problem is getting worse. Between the first and second reports, restrictions on religious freedom increased in twice as many countries as those in which restrictions decreased. And because the problem-countries tend to be populous, the increasing restrictions affected some 2.2 billion people, or about a third of the world’s population, whereas the small numbers of improvements affected only about 1 percent of the world’s population.

The religious minorities most subject to harassment in these and other countries were Christians, who were harassed in 130 nations, and Muslims, who were a close second at 117.

Many of the nations with the highest restrictions on religious freedom are Muslim nations, including the theocratic autocracies of Iran and Saudi Arabia, but also the nascent and struggling democracies such as Pakistan, Indonesia, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Both history and modern scholarship (see Brian Grim and Roger Finke, The Price of Freedom Denied) demonstrate that a robust system of religious liberty in both law and culture is indispensible to individual human dignity, and to the social, economic, intellectual, political, and religious flourishing of civil societies and of nations. Without religious freedom, democracy will not take root in places like Egypt and Pakistan. Without religious freedom, the ideas that feed violent Islamist extremism and terrorism are unlikely to be defeated.


LOPEZ: Does it get much more complicated when Islam and sharia are involved?

FARR: Indeed it does. Radical forms of sharia — which disadvantage women, non-Muslims, and reformist Muslims — are utterly incompatible with religious freedom, the core of which is full equality under the law for all religious actors and ideas in civil and political society.

Equality imposes limits in a democratic society. It prevents persecution of minorities and, indeed, puts them on an equal footing with majorities. But it also frees reformers to speak openly about their own religious traditions, including those who would move Islamic nations in a more liberal direction.


LOPEZ: What would you hope someone who is Catholic but doesn’t agree with his Church on contraception or someone who does not believe in God would keep in mind about religious liberty?

FARR: Religious liberty protects us all, including the right of non-belief. But the reverse is not true: Non-belief cannot provide a firm ground for the protection of religious freedom.

As for dissenting Catholics, they have an absolute civil right to believe what they want, and practice as they please. But the Church also has a right — some would say a duty — to teach the truth publicly, including the truth that those who reject the fundamental teachings of the Church are no longer Catholic.


LOPEZ: Is the secularization some warn of a national-security threat? Isn’t it, at root, about freedom, too? The freedom to not have a Catholic bishop or anyone else with a Bible or Koran — or a Book of Mormon — impose his values on me?

FARR: Secularization is a national-security threat if it attacks religious freedom, and therefore undermines a fundamental pillar of democracy. This may be what we are seeing in Europe and Canada. In Canada, it is estimated that since the adoption of gay marriage in 2005, between 200 and 300 proceedings have been launched against defenders of marriage in courts, human-rights commissions, and employment boards. The Catholic bishop of Calgary was threatened with litigation and charged with a “human-rights violation” for circulating a letter within his diocese repeating Catholic teachings on marriage.

The question for us is whether our own future lies down this path of growing hostility toward religion, especially traditional religion, in public life.

Democracy is a system of regulating contending truth claims. It has winners and losers. A democracy based on religious freedom means that people with Bibles and Korans have the same rights as people who read Rawls or other sacred writers. Each can make his case in our deliberations over public policy. And each can win. To suggest that it is unconstitutional to employ “religious and moral values” to shape our laws over marriage — as Judge Vaughn Walker did in the Proposition 8 case — is both undemocratic and un-American. 


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