NOTRE DAME, Indiana — Religious freedom “is essential to the dignity of the human person and the flourishing of all that is noble” in them, said Cardinal Timothy Dolan, archbishop of New York, during the inaugural Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit on Monday, June 28.
Offering a keynote address to faith and thought leaders gathered in defense and advocacy of religious freedom, Cardinal Dolan titled his remarks “Correcting the Narrative.”
“Why? Because I am afraid that what used to be a rather noncontroversial no-brainer — defending religious freedom, something as American as mom, apple pie, the flag and Knute Rockne — has now become caricatured … as an oppressive, partisan, right wing, unenlightened crusade.”
In his remarks, Cardinal Dolan expressed fear that “our culture may have moved from its former postures of encouraging a place in the public square for believers” to “neutrality about the role of faith in the public square” to now “an outright antagonism to any voice inspired by faith having a welcome place in the public discourse.”
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“Republicans and Democrats alike have long agreed that the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty includes not only what goes on within the four walls of the church, but also the religiously motivated acts of service that fulfill the mission of that church. Now I am afraid that we often hear we must leave our conscience behind when we step into the public square.”
The conference coincided with the Catholic celebration of Religious Freedom Week — which begins with the “feast of two martyrs to the rights of conscience,” St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, and ends on July 4, the holiday marking U.S. independence.
Calling for “the freedom to carry the convictions of a faith-armed conscience into our public lives,” Cardinal Dolan said defense of religious freedom is “the quintessential American cause.”
Quoting St. Irenaeus, Cardinal Dolan said, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” He added, “Man is fully alive when he or she has the liberty to acknowledge the very glory of God.”
Following his remarks, Cardinal Dolan participated in a Interfaith Dialogue Panel with Elder Quentin L. Cook of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Dr. Jacqueline Rivers of The Seymour Institute for Black Church and Policy Studies and Rabbi Meir Soloveichik of the Congregation Shearith Israel.
During his remarks, Elder Cook expressed concern that blessings that flow from “religious impulse are often seen as antithetical to what is valued most in our society.”
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“My plea today is that all religions work together to defend faith and religious freedom in a manner that protects people of diverse faith as well as those of no faith,” said Elder Cook.
“Catholics, Evangelicals, Jews, Muslims, Latter-day Saints and other faiths must be part of a coalition of faiths that succor, act as a sanctuary and promulgate religious freedom across the world. We must not only protect our ability to profess our own religion, but also protect the right of each religion to administer its own doctrines and laws.”
In her remarks, Dr. Rivers echoed some of the same sentiments about religious freedom as Cardinal Dolan and Elder Cook, but spoke about them from a “slightly different perspective.” The discussion of religious freedom doesn’t always “look at the perspective of the Black Church,” she said.
For the Black Church — a term used to describe Protestant churches that have predominately Black congregations — religious freedom has “been both a benefit and a burden,” she added, noting that religious freedom was used to both perpetuate slavery and promote abolition.
Speaking of the civil rights movement in the United States, Dr. Rivers said what made Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. so successful were the thousands of people who took to the streets to defend the cause he promoted. But, she asked, what motivated those Black people who took to the streets? Night after night in Black churches there was “this outpouring of faith, this praise, this worship, this singing, these inspiring sermons that gave them the courage to go on the streets.”
Black Christians have a “powerful, active, passionate outpourings of faith,” she said. They are “a sleeping giant,” a major untapped resource, when it comes to religious freedom.
“If we can overcome some of these barriers and fully engage the Black Church, we can do so much to advance the cause of religious freedom,” she said. “We have to have the freedom to live in accordance with our faith. And those who are of no faith, at the same time, have to have the freedom to live in accordance with their conscience. We have to rouse the sleeping giant.”
Speaking from a remote location, Rabbi Soloveichik began his remarks recalling Abraham’s biblical classification of himself in Canaan: “I am a stranger and a neighbor among you.”
“We, as Jews, seek to be neighbors; we seek to be fully part of society, the society in which we find ourselves,” he said. “But we also demand, first and foremost, that we will have the right to be seen as strangers, set apart by our faith and by our principles — engaging the world as neighbors but also, like Abraham in Canaan, speaking candidly and eloquently about why we are different. … We have always sought to be neighbors, but we have also sought to be strangers while we are neighbors, loyal to our faith while we are part of society.”
Rabbi Soloveichek referenced a small book by Maria Poggi Johnson, a Catholic and professor of theology at the University of Scranton. In the book, titled “Strangers and Neighbors: What I Have Learned About Christianity by Living Among Orthodox Jews,” the author writes about how “the common commitment to faith that both she and her neighbors share was the foundation of their friendship while at the same time, allowing with respect, their differences.”
The book illustrates that when the “going gets tough,” communities of faith have found each other, and that is “something to celebrate,” he said.
Speaking during the religious liberty summit, Dean Marcus Cole of the Notre Dame Law School, said religious liberty is “the most important fundamental freedom in our lives, and one that is taken for granted by far too many.”
Cole said the late U.S. President Lyndon Johnson once said that “instead of winning an argument, he would much rather win a convert.”
“Those of us who understand the fundamental importance of religious liberty to our survival and to our souls must persuade, and we must win converts. … As a Christian and as a Catholic, I ask myself, how can I do this, if I cannot witness my faith, through my actions and my words? In short, we must defend religious freedom, in the United States and around the world, because our very souls depend upon it.”
The Rev. John I. Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, encouraged participants to fight the battle for religious freedom “courageously and unflinchingly, but also with a generous spirit that respects and defends the conscientious decisions of all and exhibits love for all.”
He added: “As the Religious Liberty Initiative aligns us with partners across the political and religious spectrum, and with peoples around the globe, the more obvious it becomes that we are not defending narrow interests, but universal, human rights.”