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Religious freedom in America
This column is adapted from Bishop Conley’s Nov. 6 address at a benefit for the White Rose Women’s Center in Dallas. Read full text here.
Nov. 30, 2011 - Some of you may remember a Steven Spielberg film from about a decade ago, “Amistad.” It was a true story about a dozen or so African men on trial in 1841 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 describe 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, “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 whim of other men or by the government. To deny the principles expressed in our Declaration, he said, “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.
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: new unprecedented federal regulations, state directives and municipal ordinances infringing on the religions liberty of Catholics; the erosion of conscience clauses for Catholic health care workers; Catholic hospitals, schools and universities have been told they must provide insurance that covers services contrary to the goods of love and life—abortion, sterilization and contraception; and the injustices Catholic parents face in funding their children’s education. Many of us 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.
As Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York said recently: “As Catholics we have never asked that others be forced to believe as we do. We serve people because we are Catholic, not because they are. We don’t ask the children we teach, the sick we heal, the homeless we shelter, the hungry we feed for a baptismal certificate or a passport. Nor do we ask for privileged treatment. But in turn we should never be forced to sacrifice our beliefs in order to participate fully as citizens in our common life, especially to our service to the poor, the suffering and the afflicted.”
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.
We need to restore our sense of government based on theism and natural law.
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. Through our witness, we can bring forth a new springtime of hope for the Church, and for humanity, in America.
Bishop James D. Conley is apostolic administrator of the Denver Archdiocese.
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