Our First Right: Religious Liberty

 Editor’s note: The following remarks by Archbishop Charles Chaput were submitted to the United States Commission on Civil Rights and published March 25, 2013 on Public Discourse.

My remarks today are purely my own. But they’re shaped by twenty-five years as a Catholic bishop and the social and religious ministries that such work involves; ministries that serve not just Catholics, but the much larger public and common good.

I also served for three years as a commissioner with the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. That experience confirmed for me the unique role that religious faith, religious believers, and religious communities play in genuine human development. It also taught me the importance of religious liberty both abroad and in our own country.

Simply put, religious freedom is a fundamental natural right and first among our civil liberties. And I believe this fact is borne out by the priority protection it specifically enjoys, along with freedom of expression, in the Constitution’s First Amendment.

I’d like to make four brief points.

Here’s my first point: Religious faith and practice are cornerstones of the American experience. It’s worth recalling that James Madison, John Adams, John Carroll, John Jay, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson—in fact, nearly all the American Founders—saw religious faith as vital to the life of a free people. They believed that liberty and happiness grow organically out of virtue. And virtue needs grounding in religious faith.

To put it another way: At the heart of the American model of public life is an essentially religious vision of man, government, and God. This model has given us a free, open, and non-sectarian society marked by an astonishing variety of cultural and religious expressions. But our system’s success does not result from the procedural mechanisms our Founders put in place. Our system works precisely because of the moral assumptions that undergird it. And those moral assumptions have a religious grounding.

When the Founders talked about religion, they meant something much more demanding than a vague “spirituality.” The distinguished legal scholar Harold Berman showed that the Founders—though they had differing views about religious faith among themselves—understood religion positively as “both belief in God and belief in an after-life of reward for virtue, and punishment for sin.” In other words, religion mattered—personally and socially. It was more than a private preference. It made people live differently and live better. And therefore people’s faith was assumed to have broad implications, including the social, economic, and political kind.

That leads to my second point: Freedom of religion is more than freedom of worship. The right to worship is a necessary but not a sufficient part of religious liberty. For most religious believers, and certainly for Christians, faith requires community. It begins in worship, but it also demands preaching, teaching, and service; in other words, active engagement with society. Faith is always personal but never private. And it involves more than prayer at home and Mass on Sunday—although these things are vitally important. Real faith always bears fruit in public witness and public action. Otherwise it’s just empty words.

The Founders saw the value of publicly engaged religious faith because they inherited its legacy and experienced its formative influence themselves. They created a nation designed in advance to depend on the moral convictions of religious believers, and to welcome their active role in public life.

Here’s my third point: Threats against religious freedom in our country are not imaginary or overstated. They’re happening right now. They’re immediate, serious, and real. Last year religious liberty advocates won a significant and appropriate Supreme Court victory in the 9-0 Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC decision. But what was stunning even to the justices in that case was the disregard for traditional constitutional understandings of religious freedom shown by the government’s arguments against the Lutheran church and school.

Hosanna-Tabor is not an isolated case. It belongs to a pattern of government coercion that includes the current administration’s HHS mandate, which violates the religious identity and mission of many religiously affiliated or inspired public ministries; interfering with the conscience rights of medical providers, private employers, and individual citizens; and attacks on the policies, hiring practices, and tax statuses of religious charities and ministries.

Why is this hostility happening? I believe much of it links to Catholic and other religious teaching on the dignity of life and human sexuality. Catholic moral convictions about abortion, contraception, the purpose of sexuality, and the nature of marriage are rooted not just in revelation, but also in reason and natural law. Human beings have a nature that’s not just the product of accident or culture, but inherent, universal, and rooted in permanent truths knowable to reason.

This understanding of the human person is the grounding of the entire American experiment. If human nature is not much more than modeling clay, and no permanent human nature exists by the hand of the Creator, then natural, unalienable rights obviously can’t exist. And no human “rights” can finally claim priority over the interests of the state.

The problem, as law scholar Gerard Bradley points out, is that critics of religious faith tend to reduce all of these moral convictions to an expression of subjective beliefs. And if they’re purely subjective beliefs, then—so the critics argue—they can’t be rationally defended. And because they’re rationally indefensible, they should be treated as a form of prejudice. In effect, two thousand years of moral experience, moral reasoning, and religious conviction become a species of bias. And arguing against same-sex “marriage” thus amounts to religiously blessed homophobia.

There’s more, though. When religious belief is redefined downward to a kind of private bias, then the religious identity of institutional ministries has no public value—other than the utility of getting credulous people to do good things. So exempting Catholic adoption agencies, for example, from placing children with gay couples becomes a concession to private prejudice. And concessions to private prejudice feed bigotry and hurt the public. Or so the reasoning goes. This is how moral teaching and religious belief end up being branded as hate speech.

Here’s my fourth and final point: From the beginning, believers—alone and in communities—have shaped American history simply by trying to live their faith in the world. We need to realize that America’s founding documents assume an implicitly religious anthropology—an idea of human nature, nature’s God, and natural rights—that many of our leaders no longer really share.

We ignore that unhappy fact at our own expense.

Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.


Most Reverend Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., is the archbishop of Philadelphia. Before his appointment to Philadelphia by Pope Benedict in 2011, he served as bishop of Rapid City, South Dakota and archbishop of Denver. He is the author of three books: Living the Catholic Faith: Rediscovering the Basics (2001); Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life (2008) and Strangers in a Strange Land (2017)

  • Alphonsus

    Archbishop Chaput simply is a maverlously clear thinker and teacher. May God bless him and bless the Church with more like him.

  • LarryCicero

    Rev. Chaput’s book, “Render Unto Caesar”, sparked my interest in Charles Carroll, who is quoted in Bradley J. Birzer’s book, “American Cicero” from 1827—“To obtain religious, as well as civil liberty, I entered zealously into the Revolution and observing the Christian religion divided into many sects, I founded the hope that no one [denomination] would be so predominant as to become the religion of the State”…”God grant that this religious liberty may be preserved in these States to the end of time, and that all believing in the religion of Christ may practice the leading principle of charity, the basis of every virtue.” Would he not be stunned at the current state of affairs?

  • HigherCalling

    Archbishop Chaput is correct, of course, in saying that “religious freedom is a fundamental natural right.” What is meant by “first among our civil liberties” is less clear. In creating the world’s first secular State, the Framers had to deal with the real obstacle presented by religion. By recognizing and enshrining so-called ‘religious liberty’ as an unalienable right, the Framers, cleverly perhaps, achieved their primary goal regarding religion in the new secular and increasingly pluralistic State: its neutralization, and its subordination to State power — a power that is accountable to nothing higher than itself. Thus, religion was cast into a secondary (and ultimately powerless) role in public life — all the while holding the illusion that it had influence on public policy. Deliberately creating a State that had no religious claims upon it, one that elevates State power above any and all religions, one free from the influence and control of any religious body, the Framers necessarily had to neutralize and dilute religion in public life. The 1st Amendment, so goes the theory, achieved that end.

    The “American Experiment” was an experiment in creating a government unfettered from religion. This odd experiment, built weakly on religious principles while not recognizing God, built on the deity of Liberty while not recognizing what truly makes us free, has grown from that DNA. Relegating God to secondary status is the equivalent of abolishing Him. Once that happens, only two things can possibly replace the religious impulse and fill the void once filled by God: the State or the Individual — both have become the gods of the American experiment. That a nation founded on Liberty is now stripping liberties from its citizens, all the while never literally violating the Constitution (the Supreme Law of the land), is not surprising, knowing that a lasting, real liberty is unsustainable when intentionally severed from the Truth that makes us free.

    • fredx2

      I guess I disagree. The founders were certain that a democracy could not exist wtihout personal virtue in each of its citizens.

      And, they believed religion was the way that virtue was instilled and maintained.

      So they believed that religion was essential. And they enshrined the first amendment to make sure that the state would never be able to suppress religion. .

      Also, remember 9 of the 13 colonies had state religions at the time of the revolution, and the 1st amendment protected that set up.

      • Theorist

        But then the Justice John Marshall unjustly eliminated these state religions because of the supremacy of federal law -the very first amendment that supposedly protected the state’s rights.

    • Theorist

      That’s true. Let me add that Americanism is inherently logically contradictory too. For instance, we have the right to free speech but it is the gov. itself which holds the right to interpret this right which necessarily vitiates the whole idea in one stroke. We have the freedom to influence the gov. according to our values unless of course, our values goes against the gov.’s constitution etc. The contradictions are so obvious that anyone who understands American values cannot actually hold them interiorly though their mouths can still say otherwise.

      A huge problem is the very fact that the gov. has a “Bill of Rights” which it alone interprets and which gives the illusion that these rights are actually legal, positive rights when they are supposed to be (at least for the founders) natural ones too. Hamilton recognized the contradiction in this and opposed the Bill of Rights but Jefferson insisted. That, plus the power to purchase Louisiana, was the only time Jefferson wanted an increase in the number of issues under state cognizance, yet Hamilton wanted an decrease in the same.

    • Alecto

      You misstate the founding intent of this wonderful country, and you slander good men responsible out of ignorance of it and them. The Framers experience with the state-sponsored Church of England, which was intolerant of other beliefs and supported by taxes was the impetus for the First Amendment. They saw the corrupting influence of this mandated support for the Church from the unwilling, i.e., those deprived of conscience rights, and clearly understood the importance of religious belief and free practice in civic life. They sought to strengthen and protect belief in a way that had not happened previously. This effort was evidenced many times in letters and public addresses. Not only the writings of James Madison confirm it, but George Washington’s farewell address of 1796 highlights this point:

      “Of all dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labour to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.”

      Or, perhaps Thomas Jefferson’s 1779 Virginia Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom will convince you that he, too, understood the importance of religion in maintaining liberty:

      “..Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested His Supreme Will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments, or burdens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do, but to extend it by its influence on reason alone….”

      Here is Jefferson upholding the notion of free will. The erosion of the principle of religious expression began in earnest with mass immigration from Europe at the start of the 20th century bringing with it foreign philosophies such as Socialism, which rejects all religion but most especially Christianity. Capitalism is a construct of Karl Marx. It is so often repeated that people generally forget where the term originated and it has nothing whatsoever to do with the American concept of individual liberty. The American Experiment is not one unfettered from religious belief. It is inextricably bound up in religious expression in both private and public life. American history from the Revolution to the abolitionist movement, civil rights, and current movements to oppose the all-powerful Leviathan were motivated by religion.

      That mis-educated, indoctrinated, and hostile practitioners of the dark, coercive legal arts have sought to strip it from public life is no reflection on the Constitution, or the men who wrote it. It is a reflection on We the People. Liberty is no reward for immorality, or for complacency. How then can you assert that the founding of this country had no regard for, or worse, the intent to subdue or eliminate religious practice? Everything proves the opposite: the Founders sought to preserve religion by allowing the people to be free to practice it. The fault is ours, not in our history or documents.

      I do not recognize or revere your version of Catholicism if all it seeks to do is replace one corrupt government with another corrupt clergy-run government. And please let’s examine the Vatican for current examples of institutionalized corruption! That simply the kind of serfdom and slavery that has inflicted mankind for millennia.

      • HigherCalling

        Alecto — I understand your points and agree with many of them. I should have been more clear in saying that I was summarizing a theory (a very compelling one) that examines American history from a Catholic perspective. If you’re interested, do check out the book, “Liberty, The God That Failed” by Christopher Ferrara. He addresses each of your points and also responds to the anticipated objection that his critique is a mere post hoc attack on the Founding or even revisionist history. He is not kind to any of our history, nor to many of the heroes of our Founding, but neither is he anti-American or unpatriotic. His thesis is a reasoned plea to save the United States from the errors of our past and replace false liberty with real liberty in the only place it can truly be found — in the truth of Jesus Christ Who makes us free.

        I was thinking to respond to your comment point for point, but that would be unproductive. Rather, I would ask you to examine our so-called “Christian” Founding for any evidence of Christ in documents that carry the force of law. Catholicism recognizes the absolute necessity that Christ not be excluded from political life, lest the liberty that God intends for man be replaced with its false look-alike — license, which only serves to separate man from God. The Social Kingship of Christ proposed by the Church is not a theocracy, but it certainly differs from a government that intentionally rejects Christ or the authority of His Church. If there is an answer to how a nation founded on Christian principles and the wonderful notion of liberty is now violating all manner of Christian teaching and threatens to strip the fundamental natural right of religious liberty from Christians who make up the majority of its citizens, perhaps we should at least question why the great men who framed the laws of this great nation deliberately excluded the one and only thing that can secure a lasting and real liberty.

        By the way, it was/is not just Catholics who recognize(d) this fatal error. Not long after the Founding many second tier founders saw the error and the coming problems, primarily the relentless advance of State power. The Protestant ‘National Reform Association’ pushed hard for some recognition of Christ in our laws only to be rebuffed by the growing Leviathan that would not cede any of its power to a mention of Christ. While the formation of every government has within it the seeds of its own destruction, the striking error in our founding, the rejection of Christ, seems to have realized the fruit of that error, as there is absolutely nothing that can Constitutionally be done to reconcile our government with God.

        • Alecto

          At the risk of being conferred honorary citizenship in Blowhardia, please allow me to clarify I am in no way suggesting that this country was ever founded as a “Christian” nation. Therefore, it would be impossible to find any mention of Jesus Christ, the trinity or Christianity as authorities in “official documents”. However, it is absolutely the inspiration behind these documents as even a cursory examination of the Framers letters and journals indicate. I have often wondered whether Catholics are envious of Protestant notions that contributed to the American Revolution and creation of the United States? Aside from John Carroll, Catholic involvement in the revolution was non-existent and Catholic culture is seemingly hostile to American sentiments of “ordered liberty”. I am certainly open to other points of view on this.

          Religion, and religious practice was seen as necessary to maintain liberty (not license). I believe, and still believe, (hoping not to have perhaps mistaken personal conceit for belief), that individuals must have religious belief and be dedicated to God in order to preserve a government that protects the fundamental rights and dignity of all human beings. Unfortunately, Catholics have a deeply ingrained sense of hierarchy. It is almost contra-indicated that Catholics can “handle” responsible, limited and democratic government.

          Thanks for your recommendation. I look forward to reading Mr. Ferrara’s book.

  • Greg Cook

    @Higher calling: To say the Founders placed religious liberty in an inferior position is, I think, going a bit too far. It’s true none of them were zealots in their own lives for religion–I think Madison, et al ensconced that liberty firmly in the Constitution with the expectation that Americans would have to work to see it implemented, and with the hope that Americans would continue to be a people who recognized the vital importance of a religious worldview. William Lee Miller’s “The First Liberty” is a good examination of these themes.

  • Alecto

    I prefer free exercise to religious freedom as it is more difficult to curtail an individual’s exercise of religious belief in every sphere of society. If we settle for or allow the opposing side to define the terms, the rights at stake, we have already surrendered the battlefield.

    It is difficult to read these essays by bishops who seem to want to elevate one or another right when it suits them, citing the very Enlightenment thinkers who in their wisdom created this incredible country, and diminish other rights when that advances the Catholic agenda. These are the same people spending millions hiring lobbyists to promote open borders, taxpayer-funded healthcare, housing, education, and other welfare programs as long as they can administer the contracts. I simply cannot support them anymore. They need to understand that individual rights are sacrosanct, that their actions undermine my rights, and that their vision of some collective utopia doesn’t exist in this life.

  • Pingback: OBAMA DESTROYS THE FREEDOM OF RELIGION | Obama Against the Church()