Bishop Conley on religious liberty
On Saturday, 5 November , Bishop James D. Conley, Apostolic Administrator of Denver, reflected on the growing threats to religious liberty in America in an address in Dallas, Texas, at St Joseph's Helpers / White Rose Women's Center, one of the nation's pioneering crisis pregnancy centers. The following are excerpts from the Bishop's address.
G. K. Chesterton wrote famously that America is "a nation with the soul of a church". And he saw the substance of the American soul most clearly in our Declaration of Independence.
At the heart of the Declaration is the recognition of an inalienable right to life. But that right to life is rooted in a broader framework of assumptions about what rights are and where rights come from. The Declaration assumes that America is one nation under God and that all men and women have God-given rights. It assumes that government exists for no other purpose than to defend and promote these rights.
Many historians today emphasize the influence of Enlightenment Deism and natural rights philosophy on our Founding Fathers and founding documents. That's no doubt true. But that's not the only influence, and probably not even the primary influence. When I read the Declaration and the Constitution that grew out of it, I see everywhere the spirit of biblical and Christian humanism running through these texts. Many observers have seen this same spirit, including such Christian luminaries as Chesterton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jacques Maritain, John Courtney Murray, Martin Luther King and Blessed John Paul II.
These writers would not claim that America's founders intended to establish a religious government. Neither would I. The Founders were men of reason. And the America they founded was not intended to be a theocracy. In fact, just the opposite. The Founders specifically disallowed any state-sanctioned religion.
Nevertheless, the government they did establish was founded on theistic, if not explicitly Christian, principles. Whatever its precise Christian pedigree, it cannot be denied that our government is based on a belief that human rights come from God, not governments, and that the world is in the hands of what the Declaration called "Nature's God" and "the Supreme Judge of the World".
Certainly the Founders had profound moral blind spots. The Constitution makes no mention of God and even more tragically, denies full rights to slaves and women. But the Declaration's expressed belief in the divine origin of the human person is everywhere presumed in the Constitution. And throughout American history, this belief has served as a goad to our national conscience.
This belief has inspired reforms and renewal in every generation. The abolitionist movement is just one example. The pro-life movement is another. The Founders' belief in God-given rights continues to be a bulwark for our liberty, pushing us as believers and citizens to make sure that injustice, cowardice and political expediency never get the final word in our public affairs. Again, it is important to understand that this belief is rooted — not in secular philosophy, but in the religious humanism of the Christian tradition.
In his powerful and profound Letter from the Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King said the Constitution and Declaration together form the "great wells of democracy" that express "the most sacred values in our Judaeo-Christian heritage". King was right. Our country was not founded to be a theocracy. But our country is also unimaginable without reference to the values of our Judaeo-Christian heritage. America's founders shared a common belief that religion mattered — not only for the private salvation and welfare of individuals, but also for the commonweal of the nation.
Charles Carroll, the Declaration's only Catholic signatory, put it well in a letter to James McHenry, one of the signers of the Constitution: Without morals a republic cannot subsist any length of time; they therefore who are decrying the Christian religion, whose morality is so sublime and pure ... are undermining the solid foundation of morals, the best security for the duration of free governments.
This brings us to the crux of the problem in our day.
To use Carroll's language: In our day, those "decrying the Christian religion" are now in charge in America — in the academy, the media, the government and the courts. They are part of an increasingly brazen and radically secular elite that is bent on neutralizing Christianity's influence in our public life and undermining the values expressed in our founding documents.
A lot of people try to describe "secularism" as a kind of simple neutrality towards religious beliefs in the name of objectivity. The evidence proves different. The elites in our society are not neutral toward religion. They are deliberately engaged in a process that aims to remove all traces of religious faith from our public life. The result is that in America today we have a kind of publicly enforced religious indifferentism, or what recent Popes have called "practical atheism".
The Constitution insists that no religious test shall ever be required for people to hold public office. But our society, in effect, now imposes an "irreligious test". To take part
in civic life, Americans must first agree to think and act as if they have no religious convictions or motivations.
America today is becoming what I would call an atheocracy — a society that is actively hostile to religious faith and religious believers. An atheocracy is a dangerous place — morally and spiritually. Cut off from the religious moorings expressed in the Declaration of Independence, we risk becoming a nation without a soul, a people with no common purpose apart from material pursuits.
As Chesterton well understood, without belief in a Creator, our democracy has no compelling reason for defending human rights: The Declaration of Independence dogmatically bases all rights on the fact that God created all men equal.... There is no basis for democracy except in a dogma about the divine origin of man.... Every other basis is a sort of sentimental confusion ... always vain for the vital purpose of constraining the tyrant.
This is the law of atheocracy. Without God, the strong decide what is right or wrong — even who lives and who dies. As Blessed John Paul II warned in his Encyclical, Centesimus Annus: "A democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism".
That is where we seem to be heading in America today. A lot of people would argue that we are already there.
The legal extermination of tiny children in the womb is only the most egregious offense against God's law. We could point to the federal government's audacious plan to force all employers, no matter what their moral beliefs, to provide health insurance to employees that includes coverage of sterilizations and contraceptives — including drugs that cause abortions.
There is apparently no area of life over which our atheocratic government does not feel omni-competent — that government knows best. This is clear in the movement to establish homosexual unions as an alternative kind of family. Under pressure from special interests who manipulate the language of "rights" and "freedom", our atheocratic government now deems itself competent to rewrite "the laws of Nature's God" — the God-given definitions of marriage and the family.
The America we have become is not the America our founders had in mind.
We need to re-connect our laws and public policy with the spirit of our Declaration of Independence. Until recently in our history, the integral relationship between our Constitution and Declaration were taken for granted. If the Constitution was the letter of the law, the Declaration was regarded as the spirit. Restoring that connection is crucial to America's future.
Some of you may remember a Steven Spielberg film from about a decade ago, "Amistad". It was a true story about some African men on trial for rebelling against slave traders who had abducted them. "Amistad" was the name of the slave boat and also the U.S. Supreme Court case that became a milestone in the abolition movement.
The attorney who defended the Africans before the Supreme Court was John Quincy Adams, our nation's fourth president and son of John Adams, one of the Founding Fathers. Accounts of the trial say that throughout, Adams kept appealing to a copy of the Declaration of Independence that was hanging on a pillar before the high court justices.
At one point, Adams said: "In the Declaration of Independence, the Laws of Nature are announced and appealed to as identical with the laws of Nature's God — and as the foundation of all obligatory human laws".
Adams argued that if the rights of these African men were not given to them by God, then they could be taken away at the whimof other men or by the government. To deny the principles expressed in our Declaration, Adams argued, "reduces to brute force all the rights of man. It places all the sacred relations of life at the power of the strongest".
Adams was right. We are living in that society he warned against.
In the face of an atheocracy, our task now as believers and citizens is to keep pointing our neighbors' eyes to our Declaration of Independence. We need to keep insisting that the laws of Nature's God are the only sure foundation for our human laws. We need to keep insisting that without God, the sacred relations of life fall prey to brute force, to the power of the strongest.
America's future depends today, as it always has, on the choices that faithful citizens will make. And that means rediscovering the basic religious and Christian values that are contained in our Declaration of Independence. It means living out our beliefs with what the Declaration calls a "firm reliance on the Protection of divine Providence". And through our witness to our beliefs, and by God's grace, we can help restore our national soul.