Ross Douthat on the dangerous redefinition of “freedom of religion”

In the Sunday edition of Hell’s Bible (aka The New York Times) there is a good op-ed by Ross Douthat.  I recommend his book: Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.

Defining Religious Liberty Down

THE words “freedom of belief” do not appear in the First Amendment. Nor do the words “freedom of worship.” Instead, the Bill of Rights guarantees Americans something that its authors called “the free exercise” of religion.  [The Obama Administration is trying to redefine “freedom of religion” as “freedom of worship“, which would marginalize Catholics from voicing in the public square a Catholic position on social issues.]

It’s a significant choice of words, because it suggests a recognition that religious faith cannot be reduced to a purely private or individual affair. [There it is.] Most religious communities conceive of themselves as peoples or families, and the requirements of most faiths extend well beyond attendance at a sabbath service [cf “freedom of worship”] — encompassing charity and activism, education and missionary efforts, and other “exercises” that any guarantee of religious freedom must protect.

I cannot improve upon the way the first lady of the United States explained this issue, speaking recently to a conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. “Our faith journey isn’t just about showing up on Sunday,” Michelle Obama said. “It’s about what we do Monday through Saturday as well … Jesus didn’t limit his ministry to the four walls of the church. He was out there fighting injustice and speaking truth to power every single day.” [Ironic, no?]

But Mrs. Obama’s words notwithstanding, there seems to be a great deal of confusion about this point in the Western leadership class today.

You can see this confusion at work in the Obama White House’s own Department of Health and Human Services, which created a religious exemption[Did it really?] to its mandate requiring employers to pay for contraception, sterilization and the days-after pill that covers only churches, and treats religious hospitals, schools and charities as purely secular operations. The defenders of the H.H.S. mandate note that it protects freedom of worship, which indeed it does. But a genuine free exercise of religion, not so much. [Our objections go deeper than an objection to being forced to pay for evil things.]

A similar spirit was at work across the Atlantic last month, when a judge in Cologne, Germany, banned circumcision as a violation of a newborn’s human rights. Here again, defenders of the decision insisted that it didn’t trample on any Jew’s or Muslim’s freedom of belief. But of course to be an adult Jew in good standing, as The Washington Post’s Charles Lane pointed out, one must circumcise one’s son at 8 days old. So while the ruling would not technically outlaw Jewish theology or Jewish worship, it would effectively outlaw Judaism itself.

Now we have the great Chick-fil-A imbroglio, in which mayors and an alderman in several American cities threatened to prevent the delicious chicken chain from opening new outlets because its Christian president told an interviewer that he supports “the biblical definition of the family unit.” Their conceit seemed to be that the religious liberties afforded to congregations (no official, to my knowledge, has threatened to close down any Chicago churches) do not extend to religious businessmen. Or alternatively, it was that while a businessman may have the right to his private beliefs, the local zoning committee has veto power over how those beliefs are exercised and expressed.

I have described all these incidents as resulting from confusion about what freedom of religion actually entails. But of course every freedom has its limits. We do not allow people to exercise beliefs that require, say, forced marriage or honor killing. You can believe in the gods of 15th-century Mesoamerica, but neither Chicago values nor American ones permit the use of Aztec sacrificial altars on the South Side.

To the extent that the H.H.S. mandate, the Cologne ruling and the Chick-fil-A controversy reflect a common logic rather than a shared confusion, then, it’s a logic that regards Western monotheism’s ideas about human sexuality — all that chastity, monogamy, male-female business — as similarly incompatible with basic modern freedoms.

Like a belief that the gods want human sacrifice, these ideas are permissible if held in private. But they cannot be exercised in ways that might deny, say, employer-provided sterilizations to people who really don’t want kids. Nor can they be exercised to deny one’s offspring the kind of sexual gratification that anti-circumcision advocates claim the procedure makes impossible. They certainly cannot be exercised in ways that might make anyone uncomfortable with his or her own sexual choices or identity.

It may seem strange that anyone could look around the pornography-saturated, fertility-challenged, family-breakdown-plagued West and see a society menaced by a repressive puritanism. But it’s clear that this perspective is widely and sincerely held. [It seem that American’s really are simultaneously hedonistic and puritanical.]

It would be refreshing, though, if it were expressed honestly, without the “of course we respect religious freedom” facade.

If you want to fine Catholic hospitals for following Catholic teaching, or prevent Jewish parents from circumcising their sons, or ban Chick-fil-A in Boston, then don’t tell religious people that you respect our freedoms. [EXACTLY.] Say what you really think: that the exercise of our religion threatens all that’s good and decent, and that you’re going to use the levers of power to bend us to your will.

There, didn’t that feel better? Now we can get on with the fight.

We must not cease to reiterate our positions in the public square.   Do not be intimidated.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. jeffreyquick says:

    “while a businessman may have the right to his private beliefs, the local zoning committee has veto power over how those beliefs are exercised and expressed.”
    It’s worse than that. Even if the business itself expresses no beliefs, it must be banned if its owner expresses the wrong beliefs. It’s a confusion of corporate people with real people.

  2. jessicahoff says:

    Perhaps Mrs. Obama needs to have a word with her old man? She sounds like she at least understands about Christianity.

  3. NoTambourines says:

    “Freedom of worship” atomizes religion to a strictly individual level, done shamefully and discreetly by consenting adults behind closed doors.

    Favoring “freedom of worship” over “freedom of religion” also attacks people’s right to organize and peaceably assemble, lest they band together and take a position that opposes the government’s doing what it pleases.

    That is why rights of “conscience” are only recognized on an individual level: Divide and conquer the ideologically incorrect.

  4. Joseph-Mary says:

    I will tell you that I think many ‘christian’ churches will have no problem with this redefining. After all, many of them go around redefining the bible all the time to suit modern sensibilities.

    I say this because a Lutheran lady just wrote me that her church would not stand up for life because they would not want to “mislead anyone into thinking we agree with all their beliefs”.
    I think many would just prefer to stay inside their four walls–if they attend a church at all–rather than to stand up for Christian moral principles. They chose comfort.

    Dead bodies float downstream.

  5. LisaP. says:

    This is brilliant and it is absolutely right.

    We have to understand, those of us on every side of this, that modernists really do believe that Christianity and Catholicism in particular are harmful beliefs. They equate most of the actual dogmas with bigotries and cruelties and superstitions. They don’t just think we are mistaken — they think we are *wrong*.

    I’ve met a few folks who would consider themselves humanists or rationalists who are happy to hold their beliefs and let others hold different beliefs. Most who call themselves atheists are actually anti-theists and most have an active streak of proselytizing stronger than anything I’ve seen in a North Carolina Baptist. They simply can’t stand not being able to convert or squash everyone around them.

    This freedom of religion thing really isn’t what it’s been made out to be. It can’t be. In fact, in the real world, all you can really get is a society dominated by one belief system that tolerates other, minor belief systems (that are not wholly incompatible with it already) within it. Once this was Christianity smiling charitably (if patronizingly) on a few atheists, Muslims, Hindus, whatever. Now it’s modernism paying lip service to Christians, but losing patience for the game when Christians act as if they don’t realize who call the shots these days.

  6. LisaP. says:

    “Dead bodies float downstream.”

    Wow, that’s pretty . . . visceral? Never heard that one, I have to say I like it.

  7. heway says:


  8. Serviam1 says:

    “Dead bodies float down stream. It takes live bodies to resist the current.”
    — Servant of God Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen

  9. LisaP. says:

    Thank you!

  10. Starbucks and others have taken sides on the marriage debate without any mayors giving them grief. Chik-fil-A appreciation day is Wednesday August 1. I intend to order a big combo meal.

  11. The Cobbler says:

    Chesterton also commented at a certain length — one of those passages where he wants to make his point appear gradually, which he indulges in rarely; I think it was in The Everlasting Man — on the Church swimming against the current of the times as only a live body can do; whether he ever put it as succinctly as Sheen I don’t recall.

  12. Bill Russell says:

    G.K.Chesterton said it first;
    “Dead bodies float downstream, only live ones swim against it”.

    G.K.’s Weekly, 1928

  13. anilwang says:

    Even if “freedom of religion” were restricted to “freedom of worship”, that would not affect Catholicism since for Catholicism “freedom of worship” *is* “freedom of religion”. According to the 2157 in the Catechism a Catholic is to offer up the works of each day to God as an act of worship (see ). It is simply not possible to be a Sunday only Catholic.

  14. LisaP. says:

    Ahhhh. . . . well, Chesterton is definitely the man. I’d like to see video of Chesterton quoted by Sheen!

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