Americans have endured a lot over the last two years. During the global pandemic and lockdowns, we lost our ability to gather in person to learn and work, to celebrate with family, and to worship in community. As we struggled with social distancing, many turned to faith in God.
In a study including 95 countries, Google searches for prayer went up by 50%. Faith communities seized opportunities to care for their neighbors’ bodies, minds, and souls through food banks, emergency clinics, and by counseling the grieving. The witness they bore in their communities showed that the intrinsic good of religion also overflows to bless surrounding communities. Yet COVID-19 brought unprecedented restrictions on the freedom of people both to worship God and to bear witness in the public square.
A militant secularism that is hostile to religion has been on the rise for many years. During the pandemic, it grew to fruition. Who would have imagined that a local mayor could stop citizens from worshipping while a casino could still operate? But then who would have imagined that federal, state, and local leaders could punish Americans for living according to the objective truth that we are created male and female? Who could have imagined that faith-based adoption agencies would be punished for living out their belief that marriage is between a man and a woman? Or a cake artist, a florist, or a web designer? Believing that all we need to do is look inside in order to flourish has not made America more pluralistic. Instead, hyper-individualism has led to surging intolerance against those who dissent from new orthodoxies on sexuality, marriage, and the family.
The victims of this hostility are not just the adoption agencies, homeless shelters, and medical professionals whose faith spurs them to serve. There is a second category of victims, the people who otherwise would have been served. There is the foster child who has to wait longer for a “forever home,” the father who could have been helped back on his feet, and the young woman who could have been counseled to accept her body but instead goes through physical interventions that will change her forever.
As Carl A. Anderson, who led the Knights of Columbus for 21 years, puts it, “Being who we are means that we must act.” In the case of the Knights, a fraternal organization of Catholic men, that means seeing “all those who suffer and all those who are in need” through the eyes of a brother. From the Spanish Flu to the attack on 9/11 to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Knights have poured themselves out for others. In 2020, they donated 77 million volunteer hours and more than $187 million to charitable causes.
The Founders placed religious freedom first in our constitutional framework not just so that Americans could listen in pews, kneel on prayer rugs, or sing and dance on holy days. They placed it first so that we could act according to who we are in worship and witness. Countless Americans have been spiritually and materially blessed because women and men have turned their worship of God into witness to their neighbors. America desperately needs this witness now, not just for justice and mercy, but for unity. As Anderson says, we can fight against “violence, discord, and alienation” by demonstrating “the values we bring to society particularly as Catholics ... that hold society together.”
The battle for religious liberty is not a fight on behalf of one faith, and it cannot be won by members of one faith alone. As McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University Robert P. George puts it, all human beings are conscientious truth-seekers. We all flourish best when we can ask questions about the important things in life and then bear witness to what we believe. Our ally in this fight, the Religious Freedom Institute has brought together Muslims, Jews, Christians, and others to achieve broad acceptance of religious liberty as a fundamental human right, a source of both individual and social flourishing. They have designed a curriculum that shows why the Founders protected both the freedom to worship and to witness. The First Freedom Curriculum is reaching high-school students across the country and impacting the next generation of Americans.
Because each of us is endowed by our Creator with a conscience, we must be free to live according to it. Therefore, both the state and civil society must respect our freedom to worship and to witness according to our beliefs, in public as well as in private.
We have been through a lot over the last two years. As some government officials continue to overstep their authority by pushing radical new orthodoxies and intrusive mandates upon us, we must push back. It is both a duty and a privilege to contend for our First Freedom to worship God and to bear witness in the public square so that all may flourish.