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Understanding freedom for religion

Posted: July 11, 2011 - 9:11pm

Firefighters from Brooklyn’s Red Hook station arrived at the Twin Towers before the second plane hit on 9/11. All seven men of Ladder 101 lost their lives that day. This summer, the city renamed part of a neighborhood street in their honor.

But the new name, Seven in Heaven Way, isn’t to everyone’s liking.

Atheist groups have protested the public allusion to religion. “The attacks on 9/11 were an attack on America,” David Silverman, president of American Atheists, told the Brooklyn Paper. “They were an attack on our Constitution, and breaking that Constitution to honor these firefighters is the wrong thing to do.”

What’s wrong, actually, is this kind of sweeping intolerance toward Brooklyn residents expressing the sentiment that seven neighbors made the ultimate sacrifice on their behalf. This is no time for confusion over the meaning of religious freedom.

Considering the threat of terrorism and America’s appeals for Muslim societies to reject Islamist extremism and embrace freedom, it’s important we understand the nature of our own liberty.

Godless secularism — or a “naked public square” denuded of all religious references and symbols, as the late Richard John Neuhaus put it — never was intended to be the character of our American republic. Religious freedom, the cornerstone of all freedom, is freedom for religion, not hostility toward it.

Yes, the Founders wisely separated political from religious authority in our federal government, but they didn’t intend to divorce religion from public life or politics. They based the American model of religious liberty on a favorable view of religious practice.

Far from privatizing or marginalizing religion, the Founders assumed religious believers and institutions would take active roles in society, engaging in the political process and helping to shape consensus on morally fraught questions.

Believers and unbelievers alike can applaud the results: Freedom from coercion by government is essential to authentic religion, promoting a positive and public role for moral insights and habits. True religious liberty can create conditions in which religion has a more profound influence on public life. It protects the integrity of both religion and human beings. Each of us has inherent dignity, and that dignity demands freedom.

Freedom allows a person to pursue his or her highest purposes, “to order one’s own choices in accordance with truth,” as Pope Benedict XVI said in January, marking the World Day of Peace.

Indeed, the pursuit of truth and virtue requires freedom because freedom engages the moral responsibility of every person. Some Muslim voices are making similar arguments. Just before Independence Day, the Witherspoon Institute’s “Public Discourse” website posted a series on the future of freedom in Muslim societies. It features commentary from two Muslim scholars, Abdullah Saeed of the University of Melbourne in Australia and Mustafa Akyol of Turkey. Akyol is author of the new book “Islam without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.”

The Saudi-educated Saeed, citing the Quran, argues against coercion in matters of religion. “Islamic theology and thought do indeed provide resources that promote freedom,” Saeed writes for “Public Discourse.” This kind of religious case for reform is necessary to move Muslim societies toward respect for the rule of law and basic human rights-including those of religious minorities and women.

It’s not yet clear what fruits will appear from the “Arab spring” that brought winds of freedom through North Africa and the Middle East, toppling despots in Tunisia and Egypt and threatening others in Yemen, Libya and Syria.

In June, Catholic bishops from the Middle East and North Africa gathered in Venice. They exchanged perspectives on developments in the region at a conference of the Oasis International Foundation, headed by Cardinal Angelo Scola. For these leaders of small Christian minorities in their home countries, a peaceful future remains a matter of faith and not sight. The liberty they seek is to practice their religion and explain it to others, even as their societies’ Muslim majorities do.

Most nations are dominated, demographically anyway, by adherents of particular faiths. But every denomination — and the atheist camp as well — is a small minority somewhere on the planet. This reality underscores why religious liberty, not the radical secularist or theocratic systems at either end of the spectrum, should be precious to everyone.

Whether in the West or the Middle East, believers seeking peaceful, stable communities can find common ground in their views of human life, family and ordering society with respect for the transcendent. Understanding the true nature of religious liberty, not marginalizing religious expression and practice from public life in Brooklyn or Baghdad, is the sure path.

• Marshall is director of the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation.

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