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Marginalizing Religion Undermines our Democratic Foundations

Bishop Robert Barron delves into the impact of new technological developments on religious freedom and how people of faith balance their commitment to the Divine with their obligation to the common good.

Interview with Bishop Robert Barron November 30, 2021 //   15 minute read

Bishop Robert Barron is Founder of the popular Word on Fire Catholic Ministries and the Auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. A graduate of the Catholic University of America, Bishop Barron is the author of such books as Arguing Religion, the host of the documentary series, Catholicism, which appeared on PBS, and an NBC News religion correspondent.

The former political philosophy professor spoke about religion’s role in a democracy with Lindsay Lloyd, the Bradford M. Freeman Director of the Human Freedom Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute, and Chris Walsh, Senior Program Manager in the Human Freedom Initiative. Among other issues, he delved into the impact of new technological developments on religious freedom, the relevance of natural law to a pluralistic democracy, and how people of faith balance their commitment to the Divine with their obligation to the common good.

What is your definition of religious freedom?

Religious freedom is the most fundamental of the freedoms because it has to do with our orientation toward what's of ultimate value. As Pope John Paul II said, freedom is not license to do what we want, but it's the right to do as we ought. That is at the very heart of the project.

Religious liberty is my positive relationship to that ultimate value. Therefore, it belongs to the very heart of a democratic polity which seeks to respect the integrity of the individual.

Can you talk about the rise of new technologies, biotechnology in particular, and how developments like genetic adaptation and stem cell research intersect with the course of religious freedom?

I would see this from a religious standpoint. We love the sciences and their expansion in knowledge and want to allow them free rein as much as possible. But the sciences have to be reined in by some kind of moral constraint and vision. Religion brings to bear these deep moral concerns about the integrity of the individual and human dignity.

Just because we can do something doesn't mean we should do it. If a scientific advance is possible, it doesn't mean we necessarily should take it if it compromises human dignity. Allowing religions to express themselves within a democratic polity is essential lest we fall into a sort of moral chaos.

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Something that concerns me in my evangelical work, which you see in young people all the time, is scientism: the reduction of all knowledge to the scientific form of knowledge. It's a hyper-valorizing of the sciences. “If science allows it, the scientists should do it.” The religions especially can rise up to say, “Not necessarily.” We love the sciences within their proper sphere, but we must bring a moral and ultimately spiritual perspective to these questions.

The global pandemic has had a large impact on the ability of religious congregations to come together, to meet and worship as they choose. We’ve also seen churches and different religious persuasions opine one way or the other about the vaccine. What role has the church with a small C and with a capital C played during the pandemic?

We wrestle with it. I speak now as a bishop in California, all of whom met on a regular basis during the pandemic to address just these issues. From the beginning, we recognized this as a major public health challenge. We agreed with the need to close our churches and to put severe restrictions out of concern for people's health and wellbeing. We were in complete agreement with that.

The bishops of the United States, widely speaking, didn't hold to that view of there's an absolute freedom to individual desires. Deep in the Catholic tradition is a concern for the common good, and we saw that as basic as the pandemic got underway. We chose to close our churches and to limit people's participation out of concern for the common good.

As the pandemic has unfolded, I understand how that debate gets a little more roiled as people say, “Well, maybe it's time for us to allow greater freedom.” We got into those debates, too, and we pressed our government officials here in California to allow greater access as the numbers fluctuated. But we were responding, I think, with prudential judgment to the changing situation. Now churches have been opened, albeit with continued restrictions, and we are trying to monitor the situation prudentially, concerned about both the common good and people's right to worship.

Do people of faith have an obligation to take a vaccine? Where does the Church come down on that?

Again, we've tended to use the language of the common good. Americans sort of bark whenever you talk about mandates, especially coming from the government. On the other hand, there are all kinds of other vaccines that are mandated, and even our Catholic schools require parents to have their children vaccinated.

At least in California, we’re tending to follow the prescription that we followed with these other vaccinations out of concern for the common good. There's a legitimate individualism, but if that gets hyper-stressed, then we lose the common good, which is fundamental to Catholic social teaching.

How do people of faith balance their commitment to the Divine with their obligations in a democratic society?

If there is an ultimate conflict, you always go with God. Can a democratic polity become oppressive to religious people? Sure. Alexis de Tocqueville saw that a long time ago. That's always a danger or possibility. But if push comes to shove, you must stand with the Lord. I am with Thomas More, who spent a long time trying to prudentially adjudicate his relationship with King Henry VIII and define a path through that thicket. But on his execution, he said, “I die the king’s faithful servant, but God’s first."

What effect does the rise of the “Nones,” or the religiously unaffiliated, have on religious freedom in our country and around the world?

The first major effect is that religion is fading away from people's consciousness. Today, 40% of young people under age 30 now claim no religious affiliation. That worries me a lot. If religion is not a serious player in the arena, people will inevitably wonder, “Why bother with it and its concerns?”

Another effect is the ideological vacuum that opens when religion retreats. Secularism, with all sorts of moral features, moves into the vacated space, introducing a real danger to religion and religious liberty.

A third concern, which I see all the time among young people, is attitudes toward sex. Secularism brings a very clear moral perspective toward homosexuality, transgenderism, and same-sex marriage. It’s basically a vision of live and let live, allowing complete sexual freedom, a vision I think leads to disastrous consequences. Religion is seen increasingly as the chief rival to this moral vision of complete sexual liberty, which explains the intensity of attempts to suppress religion.

Another effect is the ideological vacuum that opens when religion retreats. Secularism, with all sorts of moral features, moves into the vacated space, introducing a real danger to religion and religious liberty.

You're often called the “social media bishop,” especially for engaging people to talk about different ideas and to enter into civil and reasoned dialogue. Why is that so important to fostering religious freedom?

When people disagree about important matters, we typically take one of two approaches: aggression or indifference. On the one hand, is a violent imposition of one's belief, and on the other hand is a bland toleration. Neither one of these approaches moves us toward truth, goodness, and beauty.

What we need instead is what sits between bland toleration and violent imposition, namely real argument. This involves marshaling of evidence, close attention to the data, formulation of syllogisms, drawing of conclusions, testing of one's conclusions, and entering into civil dialogue with those who disagree.

We see this all the way back in Plato, in his Socratic dialogues or forms of argumentation. Today, we're losing that art, and all we are left with is some version of, “I'm going to shout you down,” or “I'm going to blindly tolerate everything.”

Neither is good for democracy. A democracy is founded upon a keen sense of argument, a real engagement of issues in a civil way. Following the rules of effective argumentation is essential to a flourishing democracy.

What is the connection between religious freedom and democratic stability? How do they reinforce one another?

Most people take basic human equality for granted — it is a major value today. But where does equality come from? When you read the ancient political philosophers, you will not see an emphasis on human equality. They didn’t believe all people were created equal. In fact, the political views of Plato and Aristotle are predicated upon the assumption that people are not equal.

Plato proposes three divisions of society, while Aristotle says a tiny handful of elites are the ones who should govern society, while the rest of the people should do what they're told, or stay within the household, or remain as slaves. For ancient thinkers, equality was by no means self-evident.

How, then, could Thomas Jefferson say that it’s self-evident that all people are created equal? It’s because of that tiny word, “created,” a word we often skip over: all men are created equal. We’re not equal in beauty or skill or moral virtue or anything else. We're radically unequal. The classical philosophers recognized that, convinced that the best and brightest ought to be the rulers of the society.

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But something happened in between Plato and Thomas Jefferson, and it was precisely Judeo-Christian revelation, which taught that all men are created equal. That’s why once you take God out of the picture, human equality will follow close behind.

The same thing is true with human rights. Plato and Aristotle never thought everyone had inalienable rights. They thought a few social elites had rights, and maybe the other people would be granted prerogatives by the condescension of the state (as in contemporary atheist systems), but by no means did everyone deserve the same human rights.

So, then, where do human rights come from? I would argue that Jefferson gave away the game: People are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights.

I want religion to be active and operative within our society because I care for our democracy. If religion is marginalized, then the very foundations of our democracy — equality, rights, and freedom — are going to be compromised. That's my fundamental fear.

I want religion to be active and operative within our society because I care for our democracy. If religion is marginalized, then the very foundations of our democracy — equality, rights, and freedom — are going to be compromised.

Religious freedom should not be something granted by the state in a sovereign way, as if the government will tolerate you oddball religious people having your little hobby. No, religious freedom belongs to the very foundations of a healthy democracy. That’s why I tremble for our system in which religion becomes more and more marginalized.

Given all this, how do policymakers in a pluralistic democracy bring together groups that seem to be in opposition to each other?

Within the Catholic tradition that I come out of we have the philosophy of natural law. Natural law is religious in that it participates in the providence of God. We would recognize certain moral values that are inherent in the very structure of reality, which come ultimately from God, who is the source of all meaning, intelligibility, and value. Just as the intelligibility that is explored by the sciences comes from God, so the moral intelligibility that is explored by ethicists comes from God. To that degree they're religious.

On the other hand, they're not so peculiarly tied to Christian revelation that they can't be accessed by a wide variety of people. When making public argument, I'd follow John Courtney Murray, the great Jesuit theoretician, who recommended appealing to our own natural law tradition, which remains accessible to all people of good mind and will.

Again, it’s religious indeed, because it's coming ultimately from God, grounded in values that are outside of individual preference or opinion. There's something objective about it. At the same time, it's not so peculiar and sectarian that other people couldn't grasp and accept it.

I would propose natural law and its great principles as a foundation for our moral conversation. The problem with moral debate today is the almost exclusive appeal to the principle of self-expression, the conviction that I have a right to express myself in any way I want to. I call it the culture of self-invention.

I would propose natural law and its great principles as a foundation for our moral conversation.

Natural law does indeed stand athwart that because it holds to objective moral intelligibilities that are meant to govern and direct my subjectivity. It's not simply up to me to determine what's good and what's true. I must be in a relationship of openness to the objective realm.

I would propose that as a framework for having a common conversation about these values.