July 4th Reflection on Religious Liberty

July 4th weekend is here and I for one am very much excited about the celebration that our local community is planning. We will be having a field day for the kids during the day accompanied by BBQ and a neighboring town will be having a Blues concert throughout the weekend. Of course there will also be fireworks throughout the night, what would the fourth of July be without the fireworks. Unfortunately there is one essential element that  is usually missing on this occasion, the Declaration of Independence. On the event of July 4th in 1776 not only was this declaration signed by our founders but it was read aloud in Philadelphia thus informing the people of the core principles and values which guided our American ancestors in making the difficult decision and sacrifice that they chose to make with respect to their relationship with Great Britain. For me the fourth of July ought to be a teachable and reflective moment on these values especially in light of our current social reality.

With that in mind I would like to offer this reflection on the values of this nation from the consistent values of the Christian/Catholic faith (since my American identity is colored by my own Catholic perspective). This year I would like to reflect on the issue that Pope Benedict XVI calls us to reflect upon during his 2011 World Day of Peace message, the belief and support of religious liberty and expression. It is good to consider this particular concern especially during this occasion since it is an expressed value of our nation.

The Declaration of Independence, which was authored by Thomas Jefferson, is very much a theological statement even though its sets the values for a secular society. It is a theological statement in so far as it recognizes its values and inalienable rights as self-evident truths that are “endowed by their Creator”. Furthermore it recognizes a supreme equality that again is derived from the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”.  For us who are Catholics this statement is particularly meaningful since it attributes natural law as the force behind these divine principles. From these statements the founders extrapolated the concept of religious liberty and they eventually incorporated it within the legal framework of the U.S. Constitution.

Reflecting on his social concerns for 2011 Pope Benedict XVI raises this issue on a global scale. He shares his concern for the development of religious fundamentalism and secularism. Vatican II set out this defense of religious liberty in the document Dignitatis Humanae and in this recent message Benedict asserted his support for this principle which as you can see follows the language of our own American founders.

The right to religious freedom is rooted in the very dignity of the human person, whose transcendent nature must not be ignored or overlooked. God created man and woman in his own image and likeness (cf. Gen 1:27). For this reason each person is endowed with the sacred right to a full life, also from a spiritual standpoint. … Respect for essential elements of human dignity, such as the right to life and the right to religious freedom, is a condition for the moral legitimacy of every social and legal norm.  – Pope Benedict XVI, 2011 World Day of Peace Message

Religious fundamentalism and secularism are two opposing polarities that compromise the principle of religious liberty. Religious fundamentalism occurs when a particular religious view dominates and oppresses the rights of others to freely engage in their own spiritual relationship with God from the rich tradition of their own faiths. It starts by establishing unfair judgment and criticism on a particular religion or religions and then eventually moves to curtail those religious practices. Secularism acts independently of religion and extols a secular ideology that is used to put down the right of communal religious expression. The Constitution gives us the right to practice our religion individually and as a community. We are not allowed to superimpose our faith or secular ideology or to critique and degrade the religious belief and expressions of another. This is not only a legal issue for us but also a moral position that is based on our faith. Even though the Catholic Church defends the faith as revealed by Jesus Christ it still recognizes that the universal Divine truth transcends religious institutions and that all people have access to the Divine truth from their own faith tradition. Pope Benedict supports this belief and defends it by  quoting St. Thomas Aquinas who says that “every truth, whoever utters it, comes from the Holy Spirit.”

This being the July 4th weekend let us reflect on the historical episode where our founders wrestled with this very question with great consideration for the purpose of defending religious liberty. The Constitutional debates of 1788 considered this issue but not so much with regards to its protection under the first article of the Bill of Rights. Instead they were concerned with the language of Article VI of the Constitution which stated that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any office of public Trust under the United States”. Two concerns were recorded with regards to this clause: that “Pagans, Deists and Mahometans might obtain offices among us”, and that “the Pope of Rome might be elected President”. These concerns were addressed by a Federalist delegate from North Carolina named James Iredell.

In his response he respects the concerns that have been raised but he believes that the creation of a dominantly pagan society and the threat of Papal rule were both slippery slope fallacies. Instead he argues that the historical reality of religious persecution through the sponsorship of the state to a religious creed is very much a real and valid concern. Delegate Iredell defends the clauses for religious liberty in this way:

But it is objected, that the people of America may perhaps chuse Representatives who have no religion at all, and that Pagans and Mahometans may be admitted into offices. But how is it possible to exclude any set of men, without taking away that principle of religious freedom which we ourselves so warmely contend for? This is the foundation on which persecution has been raised on every part of the world. The people in power were always in the right, and every body else wrong. If you admit the least difference, the door to persecution is opened.

As we celebrate the birth of our nation let us reflect on the concerns that our founders had in making sure that religious liberty would be the law of the land. Let us also value the universal truth that transcends all religious institutions and allow ourselves to value the truth that we all speak from the goodness of our own religious tradition.


About jdgonzo73

I am a Catholic lay minister in the field of Christian ethics, Latino theology and Paulacrucian spirituality. I am currently a Doctor of Ministry student at Fordham, an ad-junct professor at Molloy College and St. John's University and the Project Coordinator with the Catholic Roundtable.
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