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RELIGIOUS LIBERTY/ The Culture & the Church

Our culture is drowning in rights. The founding fathers did not delineate the corresponding responsibilities to accompany these rights. Michael Sean Winters comments on religious freedom.

Typical American Church Typical American Church

Our culture is drowning in rights. Everyone thinks they have a right to everything and some take rights they do enjoy to excuse truly abhorrent behavior. Women have a right to free contraception. Bar customers claim a right to drink one too many. Wall Street sharks take the right to private property that is justly theirs, and turn it into an excuse to rig the game and rip off the economy and the taxpayer. A customer spills his coffee on himself and thinks he has a right to sue McDonald's for producing too-hot coffee. And, of course, once the Supreme Court went mucking around in the penumbra of the Constitution, they found constitutional rights that, for some reason, had never occurred to the authors of that document.

Those authors did not delineate sets of corresponding responsibilities to accompany those rights. In a sense, they did not think they had to. While it is true that the founders had an essentially pessimistic view of human nature, and thought the only effective way to guarantee liberty was to pit diverse interests against one another, those same founders could scarcely imagine that one day, our day, would dawn in which morality would be viewed as somehow alien to our political system, that there would be no confidence about the power of human reason to ascertain the rightness or wrongness of certain acts, that the nation they helped birth would enjoy not only a free market economy but a free market of moralities, all running into each other. This collapse of a shared moral language is, as the Holy Father has suggested, one of the principal civilizational challenges facing the West today. But, that is not our focus today.

The first right listed in the First Amendment is the right to freedom of worship. There is no evidence that the founders were trying to prioritize it above the other enumerated rights, but it clearly was central to their concerns. Several of the colonies – Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Maryland and Pennsylvania – were first settled by those who left the Old World specifically to seek freedom of worship in the New. (In the case of Connecticut and Rhode Island, they left Massachusetts to seek religious freedom. Turns out those early Puritans claimed religious liberty but were not keen on extending it to others.)