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November 5, 2011
The Sacred Relations of Life: Christian Witness and the Challenge of “Atheocracy”
Most Rev. James D. Conley, S.T.L., Auxiliary Bishop of Denver, delivered the following address on behalf of St. Joseph’s Helpers and White Rose Women’s Center in Dallas Texas.
Friends, it is great to be with you! I am honored by your invitation to be here. May God bless you for your continued dedication to the Gospel of life!
White Rose and St. Joseph’s Helpers are a beacon of hope for Dallas and for our country. I salute you for everything you are doing, at so many levels, to defend the sanctity and dignity of human life.
You are on the front lines of the pro-life struggle — for the authentic rights of women and their unborn children. You are part of a long and noble American tradition of faith-based initiatives aimed at promoting real justice and social change.
We are on the right side of history, my friends. Just as those Christians were who opposed slavery before the Civil War, and just as those Christians were who locked arms with the Rev. Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement.
And our movement is making important gains.
The growth of crisis pregnancy centers like White Rose around the country is just one sign. By some estimates, almost 2 million women each year are now being served in crisis pregnancy centers. Clearly your work at White Rose over the past 25 years has proven to be a kind of “seed,” inspiring many others nationwide.
Thanks especially to the efforts of crisis pregnancy centers like White Rose, it is impossible for anyone today to deny the humanity of the unborn child. Every one now knows how the child grows and develops in the womb. They know the truth that this child feels pain. People today “get it.” They know this is a child — not a “fetus,” not a “potential life” — but a human person, created with the possibilities, rights and freedoms that God intends for all his children.
If today a lot of Americans still regard abortion as a necessary evil or the lesser of evils, they still regard it as an “evil.”
That’s a tribute to your work and the work of the pro-life movement more generally.
And that’s all the more amazing when you consider what we are up against in this country — a pro-choice elite establishment in politics, the press, the academy, medicine, law and the media.
So we are making real progress in this moral struggle and we are on the right side of history.
But, my friends, we face ever new challenges — new threats to life and new threats to our freedoms to witness to life. And that is what I want to talk about with you tonight.
From the very beginning, the pro-life movement has never been only a political movement. Like the abolitionists, and the civil rights movement, our movement has always been about human rights and the moral and spiritual renewal of our country.
Our religious beliefs reflect the natural law and the deepest principles of American democracy. Our peaceful witness to our beliefs has made a great contribution to the moral fabric and common good of our country.
But our freedom to express our beliefs and advocate for our views is increasingly under attack. In fact, I believe the biggest challenge the pro-life movement faces is the increasing hostility to religion in our society and the growing restrictions on religious expression that we face in American public life.
If we think it’s been hard over these past four decades, I think the biggest challenges we face lie ahead of us. Therefore, we need to understand where these challenges are coming from and what’s at stake.
To do that we need to go back to the beginning — to what America’s Founders had in mind when they established the legal and moral framework of our democracy.
It is interesting to note that some of the most trenchant commentators on American life have always been visitors from overseas, beginning with the Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1800s. But there have been many others over the years.
The British Catholic writer, G. K. Chesterton, wrote a book about America after visiting our country in the 1920s. He concluded famously that America is “a nation with the soul of a church.” And Chesterton saw the substance of the American soul most clearly in our Declaration of Independence.
As you well know, at the heart of the Declaration was 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 they come from. The Declaration assumes that we are one nation under God, a people who believe 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.
All this we find in the Declaration’s preamble. And I have to say, that even today, when I read these words they still have the power to stir my conscience:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed …
We could spend all night talking about each of these clauses in this beautiful preamble. It would be a fascinating discussion.
For instance, I’ve always found it intriguing that the first draft of the Declaration, written by Thomas Jefferson, reads: “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable.” We don’t know which one of the Founders struck out these words and replaced them with “self-evident.” Carl Becker, in his classic book on the drafting of the Declaration, thinks the handwriting looks a lot like Ben Franklin’s.
Whoever it was, I find it fascinating that Jefferson’s original sense was that our rights are “sacred.” It is a fact that many historians, especially nowadays, 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 it probably isn’t 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 written about this, including such luminaries as Chesterton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jacques Maritain, John Courtney Murray, Martin Luther King and Blessed John Paul II.
Let me share one quote, from a homily that Blessed John Paul delivered in Philadelphia, in 1979, during his very first visit to our country. This great Pope of our own generation said:
Philadelphia is the city of the Declaration of Independence — that remarkable document, containing a solemn attestation of the equality of all human beings, endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. … In the human and civil values that are contained in the spirit of this Declaration there are easily recognized strong connections with basic religious and Christian values. A sense of religion itself is part of this heritage. … This tradition poses for all future generations of America a noble challenge: “One Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Now, the Pope is not saying that America’s founders intended to establish a religious government. And neither am I. The Founders were men of reason. And America 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 some 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 as 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, who was one of the signers of the Constitution. He said:
Without morals a republic cannot subsist any length of time; they therefore who are decrying the Christian religion, whose morality is so sublime & 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.
Now, we should be clear about something. A lot of people try to describe “secularism” as a kind of simple neutrality towards religious beliefs in the name of objectivity. The evidence, however, 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 at all.
America today is becoming what I would call an atheocracy — a society that is actively hostile to religious faith and religious believers. And I might add — the faith that our society is most hostile toward is Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular.
I could list many examples to prove my point. But I think we all recognize that there is a new mentality in America, one that has grave risks for all believers — and puts in jeopardy all faith-based movements for social change and renewal.
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 G. K. Chesterton well understood, without belief in a Creator, our democracy has no compelling reason for defending human rights at all. He wrote in What I Saw in America:
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.
Our atheocracy has rejected what Chesterton called the dogmatic basis of American identity and liberties. An atheocracy has no ultimate truths to guide it and no inviolable ethical principles by which to direct political activity. Hence, it has no foundation upon which to establish justice, secure true freedom, or to constrain tyrants.
This has been a consistent theme in the writings of our current Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI — that belief in God is the only basis for human rights. At the recent gathering of world religious leaders in Assisi, he said again that where God is denied, human society plunges into violence. His words are worth hearing:
The enemies of religion … see in religion one of the principal sources of violence in the history of humanity and thus they demand that it disappear. But the denial of God has led to much cruelty and to a degree of violence that knows no bounds, which only becomes possible when man no longer recognizes any criterion or any judge above himself. ... The horrors of the concentration camps reveal with utter clarity the consequences of God’s absence. … The denial of God corrupts man, robs him of his criteria and leads him to violence.
The Pope here is describing the moral and political landscape of an atheocracy.
So was Supreme Court Justice Byron White when he called the court’s 1973 decision to legalize abortion “an exercise of raw judicial power.” That’s how an atheocracy works — by raw power, by the violence of the strong against the weak.
Once God is denied, we cannot claim any divine origin for the human person. Without God, there is no basis for morality and no necessary protections for man. 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 also point to embryonic experimentation, or euthanasia, already legal in several states; or to the government takeover of parental rights in the area of abortion.
In fact, 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.
My friends, I know these are sobering thoughts, but there is a reason for us to talk about these things this evening.
The pro-life movement has always been a force for moral renewal in America. Like the abolitionist movement before us, the pro-life cause has always called our country back to its beginnings — as a nation under God. Our country needs our witness now more than ever. The way forward begins with us.
The first step is recognizing the radical secularization that we have been talking about this evening. We need to remind people that the America we have become is not the America our founders had in mind.
We need to help them remember the warning of George Washington’s farewell address — that our “national morality” cannot be maintained by excluding “religious principle.” We need to help them remember the great words from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address: “The rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.”
And I think we need to work hard 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 our future. Let me try to illustrate my point by leaving you with one story from American history.
Some of you may remember a Steven Spielberg film from about a decade ago, “Amistad.” It was a true story about a dozen of so African men on trial for rebelling against slave traders who had abducted them. “Amistad” was the name of the slave boat. They won their case and it became an important milestone in the abolition movement.
The attorney who defended the Africans before the U.S. Supreme Court was John Quincy Adams, our nation’s fourth president and son of John Adams, one of the nation’s Founding Fathers.
Accounts of the trial say that throughout it, 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 this: “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.”
This is what we have been talking about this evening. 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 whim of 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.”
John Quincy Adams was right. And his point is the point I’ve been trying to make this evening.
We need to restore our sense of government based on theism and natural law. We need to make the same case for unborn children today that Adams made for those African men.
In the face of an atheocracy, we have to keep pointing our neighbors’ eyes to our Declaration of Independence. We have to keep insisting that the laws of Nature’s God are the only sure foundation for our human laws. We have 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.”
God, not government, is the only sure guarantee of human rights and the blessings of our liberty. We need to live as if we believe that. Only a people who believes these truths to be sacred and self-evident, can build a society worthy of men and women created by God.
Through our witness to our beliefs we can help restore our national soul.
My friends, thank you for your attention this evening! And thank you for your continued commitment and witness to these sacred and self-evident truths upon which our great nation was founded.