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Building A Culture of Religious Freedom

Back in April, Gerard Baker, the Wall Street Journal’s editor at large, wrote a column called “Persecuted Christians And Their Quiescent Leaders” that I hope all of you will read. In it, Baker hammers home two facts. Christians of every tradition—Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox—are now the most widely and brutally persecuted religious community in the world. And too many Christian leaders in too many countries, including our own, are too cowardly to name this persecution for what it is—especially when it comes at the hands of Muslim extremists.

Cowardice is not a word you’ll find in the vocabulary of Alliance Defending Freedom. And the threats to religious liberty in our own country come from a different, shrewder, but every bit as ugly brand of extremism. So it’s a blessing and a joy for me to be with you today. Courage, like cowardice, is infectious, and very few people can match the courage and character that permeate the entire ADF team. Michael Farris, Paula and Alan Sears, Amy Shepard, and so many others: These are extraordinary persons doing extraordinary work, and I count it a privilege to admire them. But I’ll come back to that at the end of my comments.

I want to talk today about “building a culture of religious freedom.” So the question naturally becomes: How do we do it? I think I can help us answer that. But I need to offer a few preliminary thoughts.

Here’s my first point, and it’s very simple. We’re mortal. We’re going to die. My father was a funeral director, and I grew up in a home where death was something sacred, but also a natural part of life. Obviously, life is a gift of God and therefore precious, especially to the people who love us. We need to protect it, preserve it, help it to flourish, and make it meaningful.

But for persons of faith, death isn’t something to fear. God never abandons the people who love him. So I’ve always found it odd that American culture spends such a huge amount of energy ignoring death and distracting us from thinking about it. Our time in this world is very limited; science can’t fix the problem; and there’s no government bailout program. So our time matters. And so does the way we use it. As all of the great saints understood, thinking a little about our death can have a wonderfully medicinal effect on human behavior.

The reason is obvious. If we believe in an afterlife where we’re held accountable for our actions, then that belief has very practical implications for our choices in this world. Obviously, some people don’t believe in God or an afterlife, and they need to act in a way that conforms to their convictions. But that doesn’t absolve us from following ours.

For those of us who are Christians, the trinity of virtues we call faith, hope, and charity should shape everything we do, both privately and in our public lives. Faith in God gives us hope in eternal life. Hope casts out fear and enables us to trust in the future and to love. And the love of God and other human persons—the virtue of charity—is the animating spirit of all authentically Christian political action. By love, I don’t mean “love” in a sentimental or indulgent sense, the kind that offers “tolerance” as an alibi for inaction in the face of evil. I mean love in the biblical sense: love with a heart of courage, love determined to build justice in society and focused on the true good of the whole human person, body and soul.

Human progress means more than getting more stuff, more entitlements, and more personal license. Real human progress always includes man’s spiritual nature. Real human progress satisfies the human hunger for solidarity and communion. So when our leaders and their slogans tell us to move “forward into the future,” we need to take a very hard look at the road we’re on, where “forward” leads, and whether it ennobles the human soul or just aggravates our selfishness, our isolation, and our appetite for things.

What all this means for our public life is this: Religious believers can live quite peacefully with the separation of Church and state, so long as the arrangement translates into real freedom of religion, and not the half-starved copy of the real thing called “freedom of worship.” We can never accept a separation of our religious faith and moral convictions from our public ministries or our political engagement. It’s impossible. And even trying to do so is evil because it forces us to live two different lives, worshiping God at home and in our churches; and worshiping the latest version of Caesar everywhere else. That turns our private convictions into lies we tell to ourselves and to each other.

Read more at The Public Discourse 

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