Pope Francis Suggests a Progressive Freedom of Religion

Posted on September 27, 2015

Last Saturday, Pope Francis delivered a homily at Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Billed as an address on religious freedom, conservatives hoped and expected the Pope to praise their hard-line opposition to abortion, contraception and LGBT rights. Right wingers could not have been more disappointed.

There was not a sentence, not even a word, in the Pope’s speech that cannot be embraced by progressives. We all understand that Francis wants Catholics to follow church teachings in their daily lives. But the Pope never said that Catholics should impose their religious beliefs on non-Catholics. In fact, he said the opposite.

The Pope called for toleration of other religions:

In a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square, or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality, it is imperative that the followers of the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance and respect for the dignity and rights of others.

He called on Americans to respect the diversity of religious beliefs:

The religions thus have the right and the duty to make clear that it is possible to build a society where a healthy pluralism which respects differences and values them as such is a precious ally in the commitment to defending human dignity and a path to peace in our troubled world.

And he praised the example of Quakers for religious tolerance and brotherly love:

The Quakers who founded Philadelphia were inspired by a profound evangelical sense of the dignity of each individual and the ideal of a community united by brotherly love. This conviction led them to found a colony which would be a haven of religious freedom and tolerance. That sense of fraternal concern for the dignity of all, especially the weak and the vulnerable, became an essential part of the American spirit.

The Pope’s speech contained only four words of comfort to right wingers, “in all its stages,” in the following passage:

I take this opportunity to thank all those, of whatever religion, who have sought to serve the God of peace by building cities of brotherly love, by caring for our neighbors in need, by defending the dignity of God’s gift of life in all its stages, by defending the cause of the poor and the immigrant. All too often, those most in need of our help are unable to be heard.

But this is an exceedingly weak reed. Progressives also believe in “defending the dignity of God’s gift of life in all its stages.” Those of us who are pro-choice simply have a different religious belief about the stages of “life.”

Nowhere did the Pope encourage individuals who oppose birth control or abortion based on sincerely-held religious beliefs to bully other individuals who hold different religious beliefs. And that is the key.

If we are true to our American ideals, freedom of religion means that government cannot interfere with the right of each individual to think and act in accordance with his or her religious beliefs. Individuals are welcome to preach their beliefs and try to persuade others to voluntarily follow along, but it is wrong—and contrary to the spirit of the First Amendment—to have government impose any religious doctrine on those who do not believe in it.

Yet, Americans tend to sit back and allow extremists to say religious freedom while they mean the very opposite. When they pressure school boards to mandate the teaching of intelligent design in schools, when they erect monuments to the Ten Commandments in courthouses, when they seek to promote prayer in public schools, right-wingers assert it’s an exercise in religious freedom. But that’s completely backwards. Freedom is the absence of such government intervention.

More to the point:

  • In the matter of abortion, it is the pregnant woman’s religious beliefs that matter. The idea that personhood “begins at conception” is purely a religious doctrine, and a recent doctrine at that. Anyone who holds such a belief is free to follow it by not having an abortion oneself. But the meaning of freedom of religion is that one group cannot use government to impose religion-based policy on others. Religious freedom sides with the pregnant woman not preachers of anti-abortion dogma.
  • In the matter of contraception, it is the employee’s religious freedom that must supersede her bosses’ views on birth control. It’s the worker who has the right to freedom, not the company. In fact, it makes no sense to recognize a right of corporations to make any religious decisions (the Supreme Court’s loopy rulings not withstanding). Corporations are merely legal constructs; they are not people and don’t “believe” anything. Religious freedom sides with the employee not the employer.
  • In the matter of same-sex marriage, it is the loving partners’ religious freedom that controls. It is absurd to suggest that a county clerk can invoke freedom of religion to avoid doing her job. If signing marriage licenses for same-sex couples violates her own interpretation of her religion (a view shared by hardly any other Christian county clerks), she should simply resign. Religious freedom sides with the same-sex partners not some sanctimonious official who would stand in their way.

It is progressives who hold the high moral ground on freedom of religion—if only we would assert it as well as Pope Francis did.