New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan thanked God for living in a country that respects…
Religious liberty is a basic human right not a right-wing fringe cause, says Cardinal Dolan at inaugural Notre Dame summit
Religious liberty is a basic human right, not a “nasty right-wing movement” to halt progress and oppress people, Cardinal Timothy Dolan told an audience Monday at the inaugural Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit.
In a keynote address, Cardinal Dolan, the archbishop of New York and the chair of the USCCB Committee for Religious Liberty, said the United States Constitution’s 18th-century framers sought to protect religion from government intrusion — not the other way around — and that they welcomed religiously informed political advocacy in the public square.
“I defend (religious liberty) not to boost the Church but to boost the human rights tradition at the heart of our republic,” said Cardinal Dolan, who added that correcting the “false narratives” around religious liberty in mainstream secular society “provides us with a lot of homework” to do.
“We advocate for religious freedom because we’re Americans,” the cardinal said.
The Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit, held June 28-29 on the campus of the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, brought together Catholic and Protestant pastors, Jewish and Islamic scholars, journalists, attorneys and others to discuss the future of religious liberty in the United States and around the world.
In several panel discussions, participants emphasized the importance of the free exercise of religion as enshrined in the Constitution’s First Amendment and analyzed several modern trends and factors creating tensions around religious liberty, such as the rise of secularism in the West, a decline in religious observance, government overreach, political polarization and the jaundiced eye with which the modern progressive movement views religious freedom.
“We need to stop berating conservative Christians for their beliefs if we want to move forward,” said Asma Uddin, a religious liberty attorney and scholar who has written “The Politics of Vulnerability.” She spoke on the importance of getting past the partisan caricatures of people outside one’s political tribe and focusing instead on each other’s humanity.
“The more we can focus on that, and not as presenting each other as a dehumanized evil ‘other,’ the closer we can get to finding effective solutions,” said Uddin, who also wrote the book “When Islam is Not a Religion.”
Uddin and others also highlighted the mixed history of religious freedom in the United States. All too often, the scholars said, the country’s dominant white Christian establishment has exploited religious liberty to deny basic human rights for racial and religious minorities.
“Religious freedom has been used by whites as a burden for African-Americans in many cases,” said Jacqueline C. Rivers, the director of the Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies.
Rivers noted that Southern plantation owners before the Civil War cited religious freedom to justify chattel slavery and advance their economic interests. Religious liberty was also cynically used by conservative white Christians and others to defend Jim Crow segregation.
“For the Black church, religious liberty has been both a benefit and a burden,” said Rivers, who noted that many abolitionists and Civil Rights leaders were motivated primarily by their religious convictions. But the historical use of religious freedom for racist ends has resulted in the Black church being somewhat ambivalent on the issue, scholars said.
“Call it one of America’s ugliest ironies; a country founded in part on the pursuit of representation and religious freedom, condoning and in some instances sanctioning the denial of religious freedom and representation for certain people,” said Justin Giboney, an attorney and political strategist who founded the AND Campaign, an organization that organizes Christians for civil and cultural engagement.
“This is perhaps the defining battle of the Black political and religious and political experience in America, a storyline of survival despite constant attempts to deny human dignity and agency,” said Giboney, who argued that the religious freedom debate in the United States is still too often framed by “affluent whites on both sides of the ideological spectrum.”
Giboney, who is Black, said his organization and others are getting involved in the religious liberty debate, “whether we’re given an invitation or not.” One of the keys to depolarizing religious freedom, Giboney said, is to listen to people of color and reconstruct the conversation with their insights included.
Noting that the summit coincided with Religious Freedom Week, Cardinal Dolan said religious freedom “has always been understood in this land as one of a cluster of fundamental freedoms” that include the freedom of speech, the press and assembly, among others.
“The case can be made that the founders were characteristically wise in placing freedom of religion as the first freedom,” said Cardinal Dolan, who suggested that the other freedoms protected in the Bill of Rights would be jeopardized if that “leadoff liberty was ever diluted.”
“All we want,” the cardinal said, “is the freedom to carry the convictions that have shaped our consciences into our public lives.”
Brian Fraga is a contributing editor for Our Sunday Visitor.