The Corner


‘We Will Not Settle for Religious Liberty’

“We are not looking for tolerance,” Peter Kwasniewski writes at LifeSiteNews, a website dedicated to traditional Christian values across a broad range of social and cultural issues. “We will not settle for religious liberty.” Strong words.

As a political cause, religious liberty in America finds its home on the right. It didn’t always. Kwasniewski, a scholar of Catholic tradition, must appreciate how recent that development is in the history of his Church.

In the Syllabus of Errors (1864), Pope Pius IX condemned the proposition that “the Church ought to be separated from the State, and the State from the Church.” His successor, Leo XIII, took gentle aim at “Americanism,” as conservative European Catholics called it. In their view, their coreligionists on this side of the ocean tended to accept liberalism in affairs of state uncritically and then let that misguided (as they saw it) political philosophy infect their assumptions about the proper relationship between the believer and the authority of Holy Mother Church: If we exaggerate the importance of the conscience of the individual, we invite anarchy, the dystopian state in which every man does what’s right only in his own eyes.

Of course, in mainstream Catholicism, that way of talking about the Church, the state, and the individual is now obsolete. In 1965, Paul VI promulgated Dignitatis Humanae, the Second Vatican Council’s declaration for religious freedom and “immunity from coercion in matters religious.” Some insist that if you squint at the evidence hard enough you can see that in DH the Council fathers only articulated and made explicit what had always been latent in Church teaching. I don’t know. Let’s just say that, on the subject of religious freedom, liberalism’s cornerstone, the tone of Catholic teaching and preaching has changed a lot in the past half century.

Political liberalism and theological liberalism overlap on the question whether church and state should be separated. American Evangelicals who as a voting bloc punch above their weight are often criticized for a perceived inconsistency: They want a wall to keep the state from encroaching on their ability to practice their faith, but they’re for open borders between the two realms when it’s a matter of the church’s access to the corridors of power in Washington and state capitals. A fundamental fact that critics of Evangelicals fail to take into account when they make that argument is that religion by its nature has a political dimension and that, more to the point, politics by its nature is religious.

Those last six words elicit howls of protest from those who identify as secular. On their lips, “religion” is a pejorative term, for ideas and practices that they regard as sub-rational and therefore beneath the dignity of an adult. So we need a new word, one that would apply, for example, to the Catechism of the Catholic Church and equally — here I paraphrase the U.S. Supreme Court — to any sincere and meaningful belief occupying in the life of its possessor a place parallel to that filled by the theological and moral convictions of those who, on grounds of religious liberty, may qualify for exemption from civil laws (United States v. Seeger, 1965).

The issue of same-sex marriage is the battleground on which the cold war between the competing belief systems of progressive secularism and conservative Christianity is waged most tellingly these days. Christians whose adherence to the traditional definition of marriage is non-negotiable have largely retreated. When they argue that a Catholic school should have the legal right not to employ a teacher in a same-sex romantic partnership, or that a Christian baker doesn’t have to provide his services for a gay wedding, they’re negotiating terms of surrender. Here conservative Christians of all denominations are coming to resemble the Amish. They recognize themselves as a people who live apart in some respects. Many are working fast to secure their ghetto rights while they still can.

I support them but don’t dismiss their honest critics who fail to see any principle that distinguishes opposition to same-sex marriage from opposition to marriage between any other two consenting adults. Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George have made the philosophical case for the traditional view of marriage. I won’t attempt to summarize their argument here. It’s enough to note that they have to construct the argument in painstaking detail because the cultural milieu in which traditional marriage was so deeply rooted that it required no such elaborate artificial support has receded. It’s been reduced to a ghetto, which most Americans, especially those under 30, have no strong desire to visit or explore. Some spent enforced time there in childhood and think that’s enough.

When Kwasniewski says that conservative Christians won’t settle for religious liberty, he doesn’t mean that the ghetto dwellers should stage a coup and seize control of the government. He means that they have a duty to civil society to infuse the wisdom and beauty of the gospel “as well as they can into the rhythms and structures of everyday life — not excluding, but neither being identified with or collapsed into, politics and political society.” If the majority ignores or fights their effort, that’s their cue to make themselves a more persuasive and attractive creative minority. They have a duty not to withdraw — but not to lash out like a culture warrior, either. (I know. Long years of reading Kathryn Lopez may have converted me.)


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