Religious freedom meaningless without truth
U.S. President Barack Obama praised the Maccabees on Wednesday at a White House Hanukkah reception. The Maccabees were a family of brothers who, following their father’s lead, defended Israel against conquest by pagans in the second century before Christ. Praising Jews who “dare to observe their faith”, Obama said: “Everybody in America can understand the spirit of this tradition. Proudly practicing our religion, whatever it might be—and defending the rights of others to do the same—that’s our common creed.”
All of this is disingenuous, of course. President Obama, like countless other political leaders in the contemporary West, has no respect for religion when it comes to attempting to apply its values to the social order, making them relevant outside the walls of a church. As Pope Francis stated in a recent interview, a “culture or a political system that does not respect openness to the transcendence of the human person ‘prunes’ or cuts down the human person.” Yet our politicians and our cultural elites insist that values come from the decisions of the State, and that human law is not subject to Divine authority.
Unfortunately, the Western conception of religious liberty has been reduced to a celebration of private religious feelings. Religious freedom is considered just fine as long as religious persons do not really believe in truth or commit themselves to the good—as long, that is, as religion itself is defined as a means of seeking personal consolation rather than a means of discerning the difference between right and wrong.
Now before anyone raises the objection that, surely, the State must prevent one religion from imposing its values on everyone, it is important to recognize that Catholicism offers a way of honoring religious liberty while still insisting that social, political and economic life should be orchestrated according to moral principles. I am referring, of course, to the natural law. A recognition of natural law not only discloses our common human morality but sets limits to every liberty, including freedom of religion. The Church insists that people need to be generally free to seek God in order to do their best in following His will, but she also insists that this freedom cannot be used to set aside the natural law. The natural law is the revelation of God in the things He has made. It may be required of all because it is accessible to all, even without the gift of Faith.
Hence it is the natural law that must serve as the Divine framework for legitimate government: Any human law that contradicts the natural law is null and void. The natural law, therefore, provides not only a guide and a restraint for governance but also a proper framework for religious liberty. It prevents the common good from being subverted by a pseudo-spiritual liberty that dissolves into license.
With this point understood, I can now assert without any inconsistency that religious liberty as conceived in a culture of relativism is meaningless. This is the key issue here. The whole point of religious liberty is that it enables the human person to fulfill the end for which he was created by seeking, without ridiculous impediments, to know, love and serve God. As Newman so wisely put it, all of us have a sense of good and evil and of living under a judgment. We have to work very hard at not feeling uneasy when we know we have done something wrong. And if this universal intuition of living under a judgment—that is, this faculty of conscience—means anything, it must mean that there is a Lawgiver who cares about our behavior. We should expect, then, that He cares enough to reveal Himself in some way, and so it is the most important task of our lives to try to figure out Who this Lawgiver is and what He expects of us.
In other words, religious liberty derives its value and potency from the authentic duty of each human person to conform his mind to the ultimate reality that underlies everything. This conformity of the mind to reality is actually the very definition of truth. The refusal to accept that truth exists is, in fact, a denial of reality. It forces us to ride a rollercoaster of ever-changing values articulated and imposed arbitrarily by cultural pressure and political force.
People like Barack Obama can seize the moral high ground by praising freedom of religion only because they have already rendered freedom of religion pointless: They have already defined religion as merely a peculiar state of consciousness which produces feelings of consolation. They will never give religion its due because they deny any truth higher than the State—or at least higher than the conceptions of our cultural elites. Politics and political correctness become the arbiter of values. Transcendance is denied, as the Pope said, and culture is closed in upon itself. Everyone is rewarded or punished accordingly.
Religious liberty is meaningless without a commitment to truth for the simple reason that religion itself is meaningless unless it is true. If religion cannot open our minds to a fuller grasp of reality than can be provided by the State, then it has no purpose. It is reduced to just one of many purely subjective personal attachments. It should be obvious that we cannot look to emotional attachments for guiding principles; and, clearly, only a fool would seek to help others or improve the social order merely by sharing his emotions.
In singling out the Maccabees for praise, President Obama had no idea of the implications. The Maccabees did not fight and die so that all religions could be freely practiced. The Maccabees did not fight and die for an emotional attachment, nor did they regard pagan religions as mere emotional attachments which were just as good as any others. They fought for their own right to conform their minds to the deepest reality of all, that they might know, love and serve God.
In our time, the rhetoric of religious liberty is designed to make us feel free when we are really in chains. We can only hope that there is still at least some danger for politicians in praising ancient heroes—in praising men and women who, were they present today, would slay them where they stand.
Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.