We offer thanks for the blessing of American liberty, a freedom that, in its extent and endurance, is unique in human history. We also affirm our determination to preserve that liberty, for us and our fellow citizens, and to ask the Lord’s guidance in doing so.
There are times that we need that help more than others. This is one of those times. I venture to say that never in our lifetime has the religious liberty of the American people been as threatened as it is today.
There are some truths and some historical realities that should not need repeating . But in today’s society, and in official Washington, we must repeat them. We must remind our fellow Americans, and especially those who exercise power, that religious liberty – the freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment – has been essential to the founding, development and improvement of the American Republic.
Alexis de Tocqueville observed the profound connection between religion and liberty in our national life: “Religion does not give [Americans] their taste for freedom,” he said. “It singularly facilitates their use of it.” Is this historical connection between Christianity and liberty an accident of history, or is it something fundamental? Our founding fathers declared that we are “endowed” by our “Creator” with inalienable rights.
George Washington’s Farewell Address insisted that religion and morality are “indispensable supports of our political prosperity,” warning that “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can be retained without religion.” John Adams asserted “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” The events of recent years seem to have proved them right.
Those views have echoed down through our history – perhaps most notably in 1961 when President Kennedy, in his Inaugural Address, spoke of the rights for which our “forefathers fought,” namely “the belief that the rights of man come NOT from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.”
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in his historic Letter from a Birmingham Jail, said that his followers “were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”
King cited St. Augustine that “an unjust law is not law at all.” Then he asked “How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law i.e. the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. “He continued, “To put it in terms of Saint Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law.” There you have the ancient teaching of the Catholic Church summed up by a Baptist preacher under arrest for living by it.
Today, we find a new hostility to the role of religious institutions in American life at a time when government is expanding its reach in extraordinary ways. We say this not only because of the U. S. Department of Health and Human Service’s abortion mandate. This may have gotten the most attention, but it wasn’t the first. Arguing before the U. S. Supreme Court in 2011, the Obama administration sought unprecedented limits on the autonomy of churches and religious institutions. The administration argued that if any “ministerial exception” in employment exists, it should be strictly “limited to those employees who perform exclusively religious functions.” Chief Justice Roberts questioned whether even the pope could meet the administrations definition of a religious minister. The Court unanimously disagreed with the administration, saying “We are unsure whether any such employees exist” because even the highest ranking churchmen have a “mix of duties.”
The HHS mandate allows only the narrowest exemption for religious institutions that, among other restrictions, hire and serve only members of their own faith. As Cardinal Daniel DiNardo put it, “Jesus himself, or the Good Samaritan…would not qualify as ‘religious enough’ for the exemption, since they insisted on helping people who did not share their view of God.” Christians are called to reach beyond their own denominations in teaching “all nations,” considering everyone to be their “neighbor” and doing “good to those who hate” them.
Earlier the Obama administration applied a similar standard to individual rights of conscience when it “rescinded most of a federal regulation that protected workers who refuse to perform services they find morally objectionable.” Health care workers now face the choice of holding on to either their religious beliefs or their jobs. Effectively, if a health care institution provides services contrary to Catholic moral teaching, Catholics need not apply.
In 2011 HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said, “We are at War.” We do not need a government that sees itself at “war” with its own citizens. Most of our leaders profess to be Christians but what kind of Christian would impose such a government mandate on our religious institutions? At the same time, what kind of Catholics do they think we are?
This is a time for choosing – choosing whether as Catholics we will stand together to protect our rights to religious freedom; to insist that the administration “make no law respecting an establishing of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Be not afraid in your choosing!
The above was edited from remarks by Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson given at the 8th annual Catholic Prayer Breakfast and published in the June 2012 issue of Columbia.