Religious Freedom

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Religious Freedom , March 20, 2017 | comments

Congressman Francis Rooney Speech:

March 20, 2017 - Religious Freedom Institute 

Thank you, Tom, for your kind introduction; and thank you to all of the members from the Religious Freedom Institute for letting me say a few words today.

Religious freedom is the core of the American pluralistic experience. It represents the free exercise of religion in addition to the separation of church and state. The Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom, passed in 1786, was the first law to protect this right, and served as the basis for religious protections in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Our religious freedom protections have enabled our people to survive and, in fact, to beat back various forms of religious intolerance over the past 240 years.

Religious freedom leads to a stable and just society. American leaders from George Washington to George W. Bush have promoted religious freedom as a stabilizing influence on individuals’ behavior. It was President Bush who said that “freedom of religion is not something to be feared… faith gives us a moral core.”

Catholic leaders have also used their unique ‘soft power’ diplomacy to promote religious freedom. The Church has sounded the alarm at the trend of reducing the role of religion in civil society, especially in the developed west. Religion is too often confined to the physical boundaries of churches, mosques and synagogues, and divorced from having an impact on everyday civic life.

On September 22, 2011, Pope Benedict XVI told the German Bundestag that religion in civic life is an essential precondition for peace and justice, because “the conviction that there is a God gives rise to the idea of human rights, equality before the law, recognition of the inviolability of human dignity in every single person and the awareness of people’s responsibility for their actions,” i.e. conscience. Centuries before Pope Benedict’s speech to the Bundestag, St. Augustine wrote in his influential work, The City of God, that people would be no more than a “band of robbers” without the justice and morality induced by religion.

United States diplomacy should use the principles of religious freedom to promote liberty around the globe. Authoritarian and less-democratic regimes need to be convinced that religious freedom is a friend, not a foe, and that it best represents their strategic interests. The notion of religious freedom as a source of conflict and as a destabilizing influence is false. In fact, the opposite is true. Free expression and exercise of religion allows relief from pressures created by opposing views, and the venting of differing opinions.

Further, religious freedom is infectious; religious freedom for one breeds the same for others. During the Second Vatican Council, Father John Courtney Murray, S.J., significantly influenced the adoption of two new doctrines, Nostra Aetate and Dignitatis Humanae. These documents expressed expanded religious freedom, allowing the Church’s acceptance of other religions, and were widely supported by Eastern European prelates who understood the importance of religious freedom, having lived under communist rule where religion was suppressed by unrestricted government power.

Religious freedom and tolerance are needed more than ever around the world today, to protect human rights and to promote stability in civil society. In Syria, the Assad regime targets Sunni Muslims while ISIS attacks Christians. The theocratic government of Iran oppresses anyone who is not a Shi’a Muslim, while Russia discriminates against anyone who does not belong to the Russian Orthodox Church.

In China, religion has long been viewed as a threat to the communist state. When I was serving as the United States Ambassador to the Holy See, I often met with Archbishop Celli, the Vatican’s point of contact for China. He often used the metaphor of an expanding birdcage to describe religious freedom in China- when the government feels threatened, the cage shrinks and when they are comfortable it expands, and the Church, the bird, has more room to fly around.

It is important to understand the importance of working with other organizations, such as the Catholic Church, on promoting the right of religious freedom in oppressive countries. Non-governmental organizations, including the United Nations and the Organization of American States, should be pressured to speak out against religious persecution.

Additionally, religious freedom can be utilized as a strategic weapon in the fight against radical Islamic terrorism. Pope Benedict XVI, in his 2006 lecture at Regensburg University, called for putting aside, as inconsistent with modernity, the language in the Koran in which the Prophet commands his adherents to spread the word by the sword. Islamic dogma must not be used as a justification for murder. Instead, we should support Muslims who speak up for tolerance and pluralism, and seek inter-religious dialogue aimed at an interpretation of the Koran aligned with our 21st century mores. Countries with blasphemy laws should be openly called out as state sponsors of religious persecution.

To conclude, (1) the positive experience of religious freedom in the United States is an example for the rest of the world, (2) the stabilizing value of religious freedom is an asset, not a liability, for promoting human rights and security around the globe, and (3) religious freedom should be used as a diplomatic instrument to confront the humanitarian and political challenges of the 21st century. 

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