Put Out into the Deep

Religion’s Place in a Free Society

My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

The celebration on the Fourth of July has become a civil ritual during which we take stock of the hard-won freedoms upon which our country is based, won through the sacrifice of many from Revolutionary times to the present.
Recently, I read the new autobiography of John Adams, our country’s second president. It was certainly fascinating to gain some insight into the times that spawned the new republic, formed out of the American colonies. The precarious nature of the Continental Congress and the subsequent writing of the Declaration of Independence in difficult times give us a greater respect for the heroism, and at times, the humanity of the Founding Fathers. The United States of America has been and always will be a place where the basic freedoms of human kind are respected.
The freedom of religion is one of our most precious national heritages. Indeed, many came to our shores, including immigrant Catholics, searching for religious freedom and tolerance. While this history has not been free from anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic hostilities, by and large, this land has welcomed and continues to be enriched by many religious traditions that respect individual freedoms while emphasizing personal responsibility. A clear reading of the historical context leads me to conclude that the Founding Fathers wanted to preserve the freedom of religion and enshrined it in the Constitution and had little intention of building a wall of separation between church and state. And if they did, the purpose was to protect religion from the state and not the state from religion.
The strength of our society is that it is built on various pillars, including the judicial system, a free press, our governmental structures, and religious institutions, among others.   If any of these pillars of society is weakened, the whole society is weakened. As Thomas Jefferson, our third president, said during his First Inaugural Address: “(These pillars) should be the creed of our political faith, the text of civil instruction, the touchstone by which we try the services of those we trust; and should we wander from them in moments of error or alarm, let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty and safety.”
I mention all of this now because today’s culture, which surely prizes personal freedom, often is dismissive or even hostile toward things religious. This has become very obvious in the passage of the same-sex marriage law in New York State. Moral truth is scoffed at or deemed unknowable. Religious institutions are derided as hopelessly out-of-touch with society and the times.  Those who have strong religious convictions are urged to keep their faith quietly private.
As well-known author and law professor Stephen L. Carter has written in his book, The Culture of Disbelief, “we have created a political and legal culture that presses the religiously faithful to be other than themselves, to act publicly, and sometimes privately as well, as though their faith does not matter to them.”
As we consider the place of religion in our free society,  we must recognize that the task of religion and people of belief is not to become more like society, but to transform the society with our faith. This means we must resist the false notion that the “spiritual life” is something separate from the so-called “secular” life of family, relationships, work, public and civic life.  For us to be truly “ourselves,” to be authentically human, our faith must animate life in all its dimensions.  To do otherwise is to trivialize our faith.  To do otherwise is to weaken a pillar on which rests the future of our society.
Also, as we rightly celebrate the freedoms of this country, let us reflect for a moment on the meaning of freedom and the right exercise of that freedom. Freedom, of course, is not the right to say or do anything one pleases. When this happens, there is chaos and usually the infringement on the freedom of another.
On the other hand, social and economic injustice and those things which corrode human dignity have the effect of impeding freedom.  A Christian understanding of freedom is one that is not self-interested when acted upon, but reaches perfection when it is directed toward the will of God.
The Founding Fathers put out into the deep in recognizing the constitutive elements of our democracy which include a place for religion.
As we have celebrated the secular feast of freedom, may all who are part of this great nation, one nation under God, with liberty and justice for all, work to make sure that liberty and justice are available to everyone.

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