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US/ Our First Right: Religious Liberty

America’s founding documents assume an implicitly religious anthropology—an idea of human nature, nature’s God, and natural rights—that many of our leaders no longer share. CHARLES CHAPUT

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My remarks today are purely my own. But they’re shaped by twenty-five years as a Catholic bishop and the social and religious ministries that such work involves; ministries that serve not just Catholics, but the much larger public and common good.

I also served for three years as a commissioner with the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. That experience confirmed for me the unique role that religious faith, religious believers, and religious communities play in genuine human development. It also taught me the importance of religious liberty both abroad and in our own country.

Simply put, religious freedom is a fundamental natural right and first among our civil liberties. And I believe this fact is borne out by the priority protection it specifically enjoys, along with freedom of expression, in the Constitution’s First Amendment.

I’d like to make four brief points.

Here’s my first point: Religious faith and practice are cornerstones of the American experience. It’s worth recalling that James Madison, John Adams, Charles Carroll, John Jay, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson—in fact, nearly all the American Founders—saw religious faith as vital to the life of a free people. They believed that liberty and happiness grow organically out of virtue. And virtue needs grounding in religious faith.

To put it another way: At the heart of the American model of public life is an essentially religious vision of man, government, and God. This model has given us a free, open, and non-sectarian society marked by an astonishing variety of cultural and religious expressions. But our system’s success does not result from the procedural mechanisms our Founders put in place. Our system works precisely because of the moral assumptions that undergird it. And those moral assumptions have a religious grounding.

When the Founders talked about religion, they meant something much more demanding than a vague “spirituality.” The distinguished legal scholar Harold Berman showed that the Founders—though they had differing views about religious faith among themselves—understood religion positively as “both belief in God and belief in an after-life of reward for virtue, and punishment for sin.” In other words, religion mattered—personally and socially. It was more than a private preference. It made people live differently and live better. And therefore people’s faith was assumed to have broad implications, including the social, economic, and political kind.

That leads to my second point: Freedom of religion is more than freedom of worship. The right to worship is a necessary but not a sufficient part of religious liberty. For most religious believers, and certainly for Christians, faith requires community. It begins in worship, but it also demands preaching, teaching, and service; in other words, active engagement with society. Faith is always personal but never private. And it involves more than prayer at home and Mass on Sunday—although these things are vitally important. Real faith always bears fruit in public witness and public action. Otherwise it’s just empty words.