The rights of conscience, Pope John Paul II once wrote, are the "primary foundation of every authentically free political order." If that is so, then we better redouble our vigilance. Here in the United States, where we fancy ourselves religiously tolerant, recent high-profile cases suggest that First Amendment rights are widely misunderstood.
In an ongoing imbroglio, Catholics around the country have lodged objections to the University of Notre Dame's decision to grant an honorary degree to President Barack Obama. They are upset that the university's honor comes in the wake of a series of decisions that flout Catholic teaching on abortion, and they judge that Notre Dame's action contradicts a directive issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2004. Some of these objecting Catholics happen to be bishops, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago among them. In response, William M. Daley, in an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune, reacted with dismay. The former co-chairman of Obama's presidential campaign called the cardinal's remarks part of "a worrisome pattern in which the Catholic hierarchy in America is mixing religion with politics." Faith, he implied, is a private matter, and religious figures violate the separation of church and state by offering their opinions in a way that might affect the public discourse.
Last week, the Iowa Supreme Court struck down a state law prohibiting homosexual men and women from marrying same-sex partners. The decision depended on the court's finding that there was no "rational basis" for Iowa's statute. More specifically, the Court determined that opposition to same-sex marriage was all (or mostly) motivated by "religion." By endorsing the law, the Court concluded, it would be endorsing religion, which is forbidden by the First Amendment.
Legal scholar Matthew Franck summarizes the implication of the court's argument well: "If a moral argument finds support in any religious commitment, then the promulgation of that argument in law is a violation of the principle of religious disestablishment." More to the point, Franck observes, this approach to First Amendment jurisprudence is "logically fallacious, historically illiterate, and politically brutish."
It is politically brutish because it, like the approach taken by Daley, tries to shove religious people from the public square by disallowing their views any influence in the formation of law or public policy. As George Weigel pointed out in a commentary on the Tribune column, it is ironic that Daley, the son of the Chicago mayor who helped John F. Kennedy win the presidency, would try to vitiate the authority of Church leadership by invoking a hoary anti-Catholic myth about bishops scheming for political power.
The problem should concern everyone, believer or not. As the Iowa case demonstrates, any religious view will be suspect, so long as it grates the sensibilities of whomever the political elite happen to be at the time. Even the views of non-religious people can be ostracized in this way. In Iowa, if an atheist favors a traditional definition of marriage, that position is nonetheless deemed unconstitutional because it happens to fall in line with the policy views held by some evangelical Christians, Catholics, Mormons, Muslims, or any other religious group.
It should be obvious that this is no way of building a pluralistic society that is free and peaceful. The American Founders knew better when they fashioned an amendment forbidding the national government from establishing a church, guaranteeing all people the right to practice their faith, and leaving the rest to local custom and personal freedom.
Recognizing the influence of religion, tyrants have always begun their quest for absolute power by co-opting religious leaders. Where they have failed in that enterprise, would-be despots have neutralized them by undermining their authority or doing away with troublesome ministers altogether. History's tyrants recognized the progression that some of us have forgotten: Where people are free to act according their conscience, they will demand the right to determine their political destiny. Where they choose their political leaders, they will seek the space to exercise economic freedom as well. The many dimensions of freedom tend to rise, and to fall, together.
These are the connections that John Paul II, a churchman under Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, understood and articulated. Those who love freedom, be they of devout religious faith or none at all, should resist attempts to silence believers under the auspices of a perverted notion of separation of church and state.