As Americans, we tell ourselves not to talk about two things in public, or even at the dinner table. You know what they are—religion and politics.
Those of us who have learned proper social etiquette have heard this since we were young. And it seems it’s a good rule of thumb. After all, most people can’t discuss either subject very civilly or with an open mind. So, if we keep our political or religious views to ourselves almost every gathering goes better.
But this quickly turns into a chicken or egg riddle. Isn’t the reason most people can’t discuss these issues civilly or with an open mind precisely because we don’t discuss them enough? And as the polite, docile, or pious among us have abided by this rule, we’ve denied ourselves and others the most fundamental critical thinking exercise – how to share, how to question, the deepening of our own thinking, and the other steps necessary for adult learning.
To make matters worse, while the meek or thoughtful may wrestle with serious ideas or the consequences of what they say, bullies, fools, and the ideologically possessed do not suffer this same timidity.
Today, secular-minded people feel as empowered as ever to voice their opposition to or advocacy for any number of hot button issues. At the same time, most Christians continue to abide by a code of silence and practice a “private” faith. As a result, we are losing our religious liberty because we are not exercising it. By not speaking enough about public issues from a Christian perspective, other voices are swaying the ethics of this nation.
Additionally, the historic project of maintaining a religiously “neutral” public square has given secularists the opportunity to shape the conscience of our nation with anti-Christian ideologies. This has been accomplished by means of state power, especially through public education and judicial activism. Moral norms are always legislated, regardless of how we feel about it. The question is, whose morality?
Religious Convictions have Enormous Public Value
Ask yourself—would it have it been better if Mahatma Gandhi had kept his religious convictions to himself in India? Do you think Martin Luther King Jr. should have ceded his leadership to someone who wasn’t ordained for ministry? Should Caesar Chavez have ignored the plight of migrant workers? What if Dorothy Day had not responded to the desperation of the homeless?
When he returned to Poland for the first time as Pope, should St. John Paul II not have celebrated Mass in the park? He did, and he declared to the atheistic Communist Party that Poles should never forget their religious heritage:
“So, before going away, I beg you once again to accept the whole of the spiritual legacy which goes by the name of ‘Poland,’ with the faith, hope and charity that Christ poured into us at our holy Baptism . . . I beg you have trust, and notwithstanding all your weakness, always seek spiritual power from him from whom countless generations of our fathers and mother have found it. Never detach ourselves from him. Never lose your spiritual freedom, with which ‘he makes a human being free.’”
It was not long before Communism collapsed in Poland, thanks in large part to St. John Paul II’s courageous witness to the power of the Gospel.
In each of these instances, courageous individuals spoke loudly about matters of religious and political significance. So why are we so convinced that we should not talk about religion or politics? As you watch the political events of 2020 unfold—especially angry mobs bent on defacing and destroying the symbols of our faith—are you convinced that your faith should remain a private matter?
Is the United States a Christian Nation?
After the flag itself, perhaps no American symbol is quite as iconic as the Statue of Liberty. And for all the rightfully respected principles it has come to be known for today, it should also stand as a curious figure to the American Christian. Certainly, Christianity has contributed tremendously to the common good, the values, and the self-understanding of Americans more than perhaps any other influence. This is because Christians of previous generations exercised their religious freedom, not because there is anything inherently Christian in our founding, our documents, our symbols, or many of the ideas that have in the long run shaped our current reality.
When architect Frederic Auguste Bartholdi set out on his personal legacy project of leaving behind a “modern colossus,” the head of the Greek God Helios probably made sense. After all, the original Colossus of Rhodes was Helios. The body of the Roman goddess Libertas was no doubt important to the Frenchman as a symbol of his own nations’ revolution, although he intended the statue to stand in Egypt. As an eventual Freemason himself, the torch of “reason” is held high above all other ideals and the statues actual title, “Liberty Enlightening the World” refers directly to the philosophy that formed so many influential Western thinkers, including the founding fathers.
Many of our public buildings are adorned with masonic, Egyptian, or other pagan symbols that ultimately point to the masonic ideal of reason alone, to the exclusion of Divine Revelation, as the guiding light of our nation. In a fresco that looks like the Son of Man’s ascent to the throne of heaven from the Book of Daniel, the Apotheosis of Washington in the capitol rotunda depicts George Washington ascending to the heavens as a god of the new “enlightened” order of reason.
Perhaps we are ignorant of American iconography, and by extension, the forces that animate their activities, but what has become evident is that, without the influence of Christian Revelation and the witness of Christians in the public square, the ideals of the American Republic have taken a decidedly sharp turn toward secularism and what the Church calls “neo-paganism.”
None of these remarks are meant to tear down our past, or to undermine the ideals or icons Americans should rightly remember. We are reflecting on these symbols so that we can see how certain Enlightenment ideals contributed to the silencing of Christian Revelation.
The Roots of Privatizing Religion are Deep
Admittedly the rise of secularism did not happen overnight. The story of how we got here is a lengthy and complicated one. Secularism has been a long time coming, and it may help your perspective to have a “Cliff Notes” version of this history.
The roots of the current crisis date back centuries. When Catholic leaders like Pope Gelasius, Pope Gregory II, St. Thomas Becket, King St. Henry II and St. Thomas Aquinas spoke on the relationship between Church and state, they set up a clear theological basis for the distinction—but collaboration—between government and the Church. Unfortunately, the trajectory of Christian Europe did not follow their framework. Instead, church leaders sought political power and influence, while civil rulers, desiring to resist ecclesial influence over their realms, advocated for a complete secularization of the state.
By the 1300s, under the influence and patronage of German princes, a scholar by the name of Marsilius of Padua proposed the basis for a completely secular state. As one scholar states, “The specifically political feature of Marsilus’s [philosophy] consists in his completely secular approach to all aspects of the state, including those connected with religion, theology, and the Church” (Gewirth, Marsilius of Padua and Medieval Philosophy, Volume I, p. 43).
Centuries later, after the conflict generated by the Protestant Reformation had torn Europe apart, the French Enlightenment put a permanent wedge between reason and religious faith, leaving the public square open and exposed to other philosophical ideas that rivaled the influence of Christianity. While the sin of Christians killing each other is our own responsibility, the solution of privatizing religion and secularizing the public square by the “separation of Church and state” has proven to be worse than the problem the Enlightenment was trying to resolve.
For the most part, Christians in Europe did not survive the secular spirit of the French Revolution. As the 19th century ended, various Christian groups were increasingly persecuted and compelled to leave Europe for the United States where they could practice their religion openly and without fear, or so it was thought.
Sadly, Catholic immigrants experienced prejudice for their tireless devotion and fidelity to the faith, especially their loyalty to the pope. Nevertheless, they flourished until one of our own, John F. Kennedy, became the President of the United States.
Most Catholics do not realize that Kennedy made himself electable precisely by privatizing his faith and rejecting the idea that religion has any objective moral content or “public” significance. He embraced the secular ideal in opposition to the Church’s teaching. He declared that his faith was a purely private matter and would not influence his political leadership. For him, politics and religion would remain entirely separate.
In a famous speech concerning his Catholic faith, he declared,
“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute—where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote . . . Whatever issue may come before me as president—on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject—I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.”
Thus was conceived within the American Catholic conscience the inviolability of personal “choice” against which no Catholic would be able to speak in public without being condemned for the intolerance of “imposing their values” on others. This is how Catholics integrated into the mainstream of American life.
How Privatizing Religion Has Hurt Christians
When reason was elevated above religious faith, even if the arguments for doing so seemed valid, the die was cast. Not only have Christians been less comfortable referring to the authority of Revelation or Christ himself in public discourse, but the privatization of faith has gradually eroded the confidence of Christians to oppose the state when fundamental human values are in peril, such as the sanctity of human life. This isn’t to suggest a juxtaposition between the two, but just the opposite. Rightly understood, both Christian faith and reason make important contributions to public life and originate from the same source, God.
By allowing secularism to privatize faith, we have allowed our voices to fade into the background of politics. Or worse, we have adopted the Enlightenment idea that faith is a private matter and should not influence our politics. As we imbibed this misunderstanding of how our faith was to be practiced or lived publicly, we have become a people that refer to ourselves as Christians but give no weight to our beliefs as a serious element of our politics.
Have you ever wondered how the Nazis came to power in Germany, a predominately Christian nation? How did Communism take over Russia, another Christian nation? How did abortion get legalized in America? In each case, the Enlightenment ideas of secularism kept Christian voices marginalized from public life.
To this day, American Catholics remain politically divided over many moral issues on which we should be one. Besides our fragmented witness, many of our leading Catholic politicians have not only privatized their Christian conscience, but even rejected some essential aspects of Gospel morality for the sake of political influence.
While Kennedy’s words about “absolute separation” sound like wisdom and inspiration, the precedence they established has developed a ready-made justification for Catholic politicians becoming some of the greatest advocates and defenders of secular ethics in the public square. Is it not ironic that, while Kennedy refused to impose the Church’s teaching on “birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject,” we now enjoy Catholic politicians leading the charge for state funded contraception, abortion on demand and coercive government mandates defining the meaning of “hate speech” toward the LGBTQ+ community?
This is not religious liberty, it’s a new dogma of secular, state sponsored religiosity. Perhaps without intending this outcome, the privatization of faith has ended up making the state a god, our secular laws a quasi-religious mandate of conscience, and the citizenry a people subject to the politics of powerful groups who have deeply negative biases toward a Christian view of the human person.
The Results of Conceding the Public Square
Here, then, is the most important lesson to learn from this history of privatizing faith and secularization. Government never actually remains “neutral” on issues of religion, especially ethics—even if it tries. Religion is not a private affair ever, or a purely subjective and psychological phenomenon. State based neutrality about religion is itself a cover for other ethical convictions that become law.
For example, take the Little Sisters of the Poor, who were and may again be forced to pay for and provide contraception coverage to their employees through the HHS mandate. Another example is the baker, Jack Phillips, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Colorado. The Civil Rights Commission of Colorado filed a lawsuit against Phillips, which he lost. Thankfully, the Supreme Court overturned the ruling. Justice Kennedy’s commentary is telling, though:
“The Commission’s treatment of Phillips’ case . . . showed elements of a clear and impermissible hostility toward the sincere religious beliefs motivating his objection. As the record shows, some of the commissioners at the Commission’s formal, public hearings endorsed the view that religious beliefs cannot legitimately be carried into the public sphere or commercial domain, disparaged Phillips’ faith as despicable and characterized it as merely rhetorical, and compared his invocation of his sincerely held religious beliefs to defenses of slavery and the Holocaust.”
Besides these increasingly overt forms of persecution, because religion is relegated to a private sphere, many clergy struggle to address moral issues or political party platforms from the pulpit for fear of losing the Church’s “tax exempt” status or “politicizing” the Gospel. Church leaders tell Catholics to “vote with their conscience” but then all too many Catholics just decide to disregard those aspects of Church teaching that don’t align with their political loyalties.
Instead, Church leaders need to remind the faithful of their obligation to align their public life with the Faith. We need accountability in upholding and defending Church teaching publicly, whether we are an ordinary citizen or a politician, lest we cause scandal. The issue is not so much about which party we belong to, but rather, whether we allow our Christian faith to guide our decisions in whatever roles we assume in our political environment.
That means Catholic politicians and citizens should be one in their witness of Faith. Only then are we exercising religious liberty and being credible witnesses of the Gospel. Christians should no longer tolerate the hypocritical conscience of those who say, “I personally believe such and such, but I don’t want to impose my values on others.”
Thus, besides the persecution of religious people, another sad result of privatizing religion and paving the way for the rise of secularism is that many Christians have lost their missionary impetus and their capacity to evangelize. We are more convinced by the ideology of “tolerance” than by the Gospel mandate to “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19).
Christians Should Have a Christian Understanding of Religious Liberty
More than ever, Christian peoples need to understand the biblical meaning of religious liberty. The right to religious liberty is rooted in the obligation and responsibility of every human person to seek the truth about God and to practice true religion as God has revealed it (CCC, no 2104). Religion is not a private matter of mere personal opinion but has both objective and public significance.
However, the Church also defines “liberty of conscience” as the individual’s rightful immunity from being forced to believe what could only be accepted in faith by a free response to Divine Revelation (CCC, no. 2106). So, for example, a Christian nation can never impose belief in Jesus Christ upon a non-believer, not because religion is private, but because faith cannot be forced since it entails a free response to the gift of grace. The same would be true within a predominantly Muslim or Hindu nation.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states it like this:
“The right to religious liberty is neither a moral license to adhere to error, nor a supposed right to error, but rather a natural right of the human person to civil liberty, i.e., immunity, within just limits, from external constraint in religious matters by political authorities. This natural right ought to be acknowledged in the juridical order of society in such a way that it constitutes a civil right” (CCC, no. 2108).
The secular view suppresses religious conviction in public through privatization, while the biblical view declares the right of every individual and religious group to practice their religion publicly. The difference in the two approaches is becoming increasingly obvious as secular idealists see Christians as a public threat to “progress” for remaining faithful to their biblical convictions.
We Must Defend Religious Liberty & Change Course
The history of privatizing faith has eroded centuries of Christian confidence in the value of our public witness of faith. While it is true that the Church should never get into the business of running civil government, it is also true that Christian teaching has made the greatest contribution to social life. Without Christianity, we would not have the modern values of personal dignity, individual liberty, human rights, freedom of speech or representative government; nor would we have such an elaborate network of schools, hospitals and other social services to care for the poor.
Yet without the influence of Christian believers acting in the public square today, these blessed ideals of social life will not last. We cannot maintain Christian morality without Christ and his Church operating in the public arena—the human tendency toward dictatorship and totalitarianism is just too great. Therefore, Christian peoples everywhere, it’s time to break the code of silence and proclaim the Gospel from the rooftops. We are called to bring our faith into every aspect of social life.
Its Time to Break the Code of Silence
In our turbulent political climate, we are facing an increasing capitulation of Christians to the ideals of the Enlightenment — by either remaining silent before the aggressive agenda of God-less secularism or, sadly, by becoming its steadfast champions. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are not permitted to do either.
As disciples of Jesus, we need to think harder and deeper about the importance of religious liberty and the Church’s social teaching. It’s time for us to begin talking about politics and religion again. In fact, we must do so, and with clarity, acumen and persistence. We need to know what we are talking about and start talking about it.
It can be tempting to allow election seasons to pass us by, simply because our options seem less than desirable. However, let us not fall victim to this complacency. It will only get better if we decide to speak up and allow our faith to influence the course of American politics.
Let’s learn and live our faith before others as one people united in Christ—and let’s allow our faith to shape the future of our public square. If we don’t, we can be assured that those who espouse atheism, consumerism, socialism, secularism and moral relativism—the Culture of Death—will determine the moral compass of our nation.
Remember, you are free to believe. You are free to speak. You are free to act with the convictions of your faith. You are free because Christ has set you free. As St. Paul says, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).
This article was originally published in October 2020 and has been updated in January 2023.