George Weigel on the contemporary enemies of religious freedom

George Weigel’s column in the Denver Catholic Register notes the difference between the threats to religious liberty that St Thomas More faced in his time, and those that we face today.  Though nobody in the western world is yet facing the loss of their head, serious threats exist to believers and religious institutions.

As Weigel notes, the government is moving in as a pincer. 

The first arm of the pincer aims to reduce religious liberty to a privacy right: a permission slip from the government to engage in certain recreational activities considered matters of personal taste.

The second arm of the pincer—embodied in the Obama administration’s contraceptive/ abortifacient mandate (which many Catholic entities are challenging in court)—aims to conscript religious institutions so that they become virtual departments of the government.  

Weigel analyzes the sources of these attacks on religious freedom.

The pressure comes in part from a newly aggressive American secularism that is sadly similar to its counterparts in 21st-century Europe. There, secularism is not benign, tolerant and pluralistic, asking only that secular views have free play in the public square. Rather, 21st-century European secularism is intolerant, hegemonic and anti-pluralistic. It demands the entire public square for itself and tries to use the coercive power of the state to drive religious conviction to the far margins of society and public life.  

At least some of Europe’s anti-religious secularism is due to centuries-old relationships between the Church and government.  We don’t have that same history of Church-state relationships, but, as Weigel notes,

Nonetheless, contemporary American secularists of the sort found in prestige law schools and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services are quite like their European counterparts: they do not seek an open public square in which all points of view are welcome; they demand secularist hegemony in public life.  And they are quite prepared to throw some sharp elbows in getting what they want.

Weigel looks at how this all got started in American public life.

How has this new cultural phenomenon gotten a beachhead in our public life? In part, by surfing waves created by over six decades of confused Supreme Court rulings in First Amendment cases—rulings that have unbalanced “free exercise” and “no establishment” in matters of religion and public life. The Framers of the Constitution did not intend that their proscription of a national church (“no establishment”) should create a radically secular American public square; they intended “no establishment” to serve the cause of “free exercise.” The United States would build a hospitable and civil public space where differences could be engaged intelligently and tolerantly, and where all points of view were welcome. “No establishment” was the means; “free exercise” was the end.

Sixty-five years of Supreme Court rulings, however, have turned this inside out, such that “free exercise” has been reduced to a set of exceptions or exemptions within the overwhelmingly secular public space the federal judiciary has created since 1947.

As Weigel notes, we have much work to do, politically and culturally, to turn this around.

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