Secularism and Social Media: Advancing religious freedom and democratic governance in troubled times

We live in dangerous times. The assault of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria on Baghdad, as well as other sectarian violence, challenge the very essence of the human person. No longer is this merely a clash of civilizations, but a struggle for the preservation of human life. Since religion or religious belief is often viewed as the origin of the hatred and bloodletting, it is not surprising that religion is treated as a toxic substance incompatible with peace or the human good, and thus off-limits.

Yet it was just a few years ago, in 2009, that President Barack Obama went to Egypt and pleaded for a greater mutual understanding among the Abrahamic faiths that could lead to greater mutual respect. In that same arc of time, the president proposed to launch an interfaith initiative on various fronts, including the efforts of his faith-based office in the White House, a specialized international ambassador devoted solely to interfaith understanding, and various members of the diplomatic community. This last front included me. I was dispatched to the Republic of Malta with a portfolio shaped by what Joshua DuBois, the key presidential adviser in these matters, called the “special presidential logic” sensitive to interfaith understanding in each country it was thought warranted. One such place was Malta, long understood as a place of uncommon kindness and welcome the Catholic faith because of the serendipity or providence of St. Paul’s shipwreck upon the island, related in the Acts of the Apostles (27:6-44). Malta represented the pivot point for the Abrahamic religions: Christianity to the north; Islam to the south and the Judaic tradition in the Middle East. What happened to the president’s initiative is a sorry tale of bureaucratic drag and insubordination.

Advertisement

The brilliant idea to equip a few carefully placed embassy officers with specialized religious knowledge in those places where religious interaction had occasioned violence or deep discord disappeared like party platforms after a national convention. Those of us who took this ideas seriously—as I am certain the president in his heart still does—and attempted to implement it, were told through bureaucratic means to be quiet. However, those of us nurtured on one-too-many Frank Capra movies where justice and right always prevail, proceeded anyway in the belief that we elected a president and not some assistant secretary or inspector general who can decide to flat-out contradict presidential direction. It is an old story: “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”

But with the sectarian violence in the news daily and our hearts still wrenched by the deaths of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, Sean Smith, Tyrone S. Woods and Glen A. Doherty in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012, the possibility for a genuine integration of religious expertise into foreign policy—and, compatibly with religious freedom, into the new constitutions of embryonic democracies—still beckons because frankly the alternative of putting boots on the ground, once again, is sickening. Pope Francis has admonished us to never to be a “sourpuss” when it comes to undertaking the transformation of culture, but even the joyful Francis must sour when he contemplates those who would mindlessly advocate  further military intervention and occupation of foreign lands as an antidote to unrest.

Thus I begin this essay with an examination of the meaning of secularism and secularization. This vocabulary is not used consistently by writers and therefore requires some definition. The drawing of the dividing line between secular and sectarian in an advanced democracy, like the United States or Malta, is usually over the extent to which religious belief trumps laws that would otherwise be generally applicable. (For example, the bylaws of a Catholic university might require a priest for a particular job, though from a civil perspective, the requirement constitutes discrimination, since priesthood is limited to men.) In the United States, any perceived slight to a religion that marches against culture, as Catholicism does in the  instance of immigration rights or gender inequality (at least as civil law defines inequality) is said to threaten bedrock principle for which many died and sacrificed. Relaxing immigration penalties in Malta or the United States? An all-male priesthood? A mandate to have insurance coverage for artificially assisted contraception? The consumption of wine in a dry jurisdiction? No matter how intensely one feels about these matters, they fall short of standing up for your faith in the face of death—put in its starkest terms by radical Sunni Muslims—but intellectually the inquiry is the same. For this reason, the supposition is indulged that if one can work out correctly a proper understanding of secularism that is not hostile to religion, the framing of new democracies in North Africa or elsewhere will be easier and more successful.

Confused Usage

In academic and popular literature, there is confusion over the basic concepts of secularism and secularization. Indeed, at different times one or the other word is used in directly contrary ways: one term is hostile to faith seeking its exclusion or disregard; the other word is more or less descriptive in a neutral fashion of how a cultural practice may have begun as an expression of faith, but later lost its overt reference to faith. (The common law practice of taking an oath, for example, reflected an effort to codify the precept against “bearing false witness” before God. Today oaths are administered to introduce a reminder of the need for integrity in a judicial process, irrespective of the original religious purpose.) Secularization is used here as a neutral reference to all religions, as opposed to any kind of denigration. Secularism is regarded as the natural consequence of an informed 21st-century mindset that desires to strip ethical systems of any and all reliance upon “myth or the irrational.” By contrast, as used here, secularization is assigned the more benign definition: the process by which one or more ethical precepts have become so embedded in the culture that their religious origin is seldom if ever contemplated.

Why Are These Concepts Important?

These concepts define the character of a people, and hence, the character of a nation. In particular they help us evaluate the sufficiency of constitutional systems. Constitutions, we are told by James Madison, are an attempt to accurately depict the truth of the human person. Today, a grasp of that truth is ever being contested. At the most general level, if a human person possesses inalienable rights, these rights may not be relinquished at will by (a) the terminally ill, seeking to withdraw nutrition and hydration to save his or her family the cost of the final illness; (b) the suicide bomber; (c) the mother of a child in utero; or (d) a mob of men in Egypt, in celebration of the imposition of a new military leader, that assaults a woman multiple times.

Grasping the truth of the human person entails honoring that truth in the design of  cultural and constitutional institutions, so that the concepts of family, town, community or nation-state are secured against doctrines that undermine these concepts. Since the time of Aristotle, democracy has been regarded as the most acceptable form of government; and the more the government is open to freely expressed ideas, including those based in religion, the more it is acceptable.

Given the importance of free speech and unfettered religious freedom to democracy, the subject matter discussed here would be important at any time, but it has unique significance now because of the uncertain prospects of transition governments in North Africa, and the extent to which the fragility of those troubled nations could have been avoided, and might still be mitigated, by a greater understanding of the demands of religious freedom, especially as that greater understanding might be expressed through social media.

Who is to Judge?

Before getting into the distinction between secularism and secularization—the former being hostile to faith and the latter being so influenced by faith in a positive way that a once-religiously particular practice has become part of the larger cultural framework—it is useful to make note of an informal comment made by Pope Francis with respect to judging fellow Catholics over issues like divorce, same-sex marriage and abortion. When Pope Francis articulates that it is not for him to judge, he is not saying that our actions avoid God’s judgment. Yet clearly Francis views it as an evangelical strength of Catholicism that the faith is neither relativistic nor so judgmental as to deny those of us who are not perfect the grace of sacramental restoration by means of reconciliation. Francis reminds us that Christ is in constant pursuit of us with a love so sublime that it never tires of our tiresome and repeated rejection of it.

Religious freedom means, at times, being “freed” of otherwise generally applicable rules. Appropriately, the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed there is value in allowing faith communities the freedom to apply their own unique standards to those who voluntarily come within their number as spiritual leaders or ministers. The so-called ministerial exemption thus allows religious communities the ability to hire or fire a clergyman on their own terms, even in cases where a non-religious employer would be under a different mandate. Thus, Francis’ reaffirmation that the priesthood is limited to the men is an absolute defense against any claim of discrimination by a woman excluded, for example, from a Catholic seminary.

Does it carry religious exemptions too far to extend them to the owners of for-profit companies? It should not surprise that this cascading of freedom upon freedom has invited a claim of religious freedom by wholly secular for-profit corporations. Is the claim within the limit or beyond it? Insofar as the typical corporation comes together for profit-making or liability-limiting purposes, such claims may bring resentment, confusion and uncertainty to religious liberty. In this respect, many employees of a publicly traded corporate firm could easily be envisioned as unaware, and potentially dissenting, from the pieties of managers and even owners—all of whom may have their own individual (and distinct) religious claims. Which set or subset of these views represent the religious thinking of a corporation? No one seems to know, which suggests the point at which individual claims of religious freedom need to be differentiated and preserved against the confusions that accompany an overreach. Those confusions or uncertainties are both internal and external.

Is the nature of religious freedom greater when a for-profit business resists a disagreeable unfunded mandate than when the government supplies a partial or total subsidy for the objectionable practice, or vice versa? It can be argued both ways: a pious, for-profit business required to supply an objectionable option seems less morally culpable than one providing the option after it accepted an economic benefit or advantage from the government.

To date, the Catholic bishops in the United States have argued for this newly-minted, broader claim of religious freedom: They have contended that a privately held, for-profit corporation may not have fully perceived how stretching the freedom of religious entities to cover for-profit business corporations tends to flatten the religious freedom claim for all, thus leaving tears in the fabric of religious freedom available in the church itself.

At the moment, the church and the for-profit pieties of corporate ownership are aligned, but it is conceivable to find them differing at some point over questions of orthodoxy. When that happens, one can expect that the church will be cautious about accepting the proposition that freedom of religion is equally muscular whether one is making the claim from rectory or a boardroom. These speculations are left unanswered for now as the current religious freedom cases wend their way through the judiciary.

Broad claims for religious exemption can trigger push back.In what may be a retaliatory move against claims of religious exemption perceived as too expansive, those fashioning public policy have defined religious entities so narrowly that few such entities qualify. For example, some recent laws have limited exemption claims to organizations that only hire people of the same faith, are actively involved in inculcating that faith, and limit their provision of beneficial services to people of the same faith. By this measure, a large Catholic charity that feeds a hungry person regardless of his or her denomination would be disqualified from eligibility for exemption. Obviously, these eligibility limits are hostile to faith and cut against the ecumenical outreach of religious bodies.

Secularism vs. Secularization—Another Look        

Scholarly work has revealed a difference between secularism and secularization. Indeed I have spent the last year or so writing a book for Oxford University Press that will illustrate aspects of that difference. It is tentatively titled Secularism Crucified.

My personal inquiry actually began during my earlier foreign service in Malta. I was intrigued by a decision of the European Court of Human Rights to approve a mandate for Italian public schools affix crucifixes to their walls. The U.S. Supreme Court had reached the opposite conclusion decades earlier, excluding the Ten Commandments from being posted in public schools, and there are legions of similar cases excluding prayer (or even a moment of silence that might be used for prayer) and any meaningful direct funding of religious schools. Exceptions started to develop for remedial publicly-funded English and mathematics instruction in Catholic “ schools,” if that study took place off the Catholic property, often in a portable trailer at the curb. In the 1970s and early 1980s additional exceptions allowing for tax credits and specialized services like language interpreters were permitted and ultimately the Supreme Court decided that so-called school vouchers or scholarships could be awarded to parents or students for their discretionary allocation to either a public or private school as long as the allocation formula did not favor the private religious school. Once this law was established, the court turned its attention to limiting the number of legal challenges claiming that one public subsidy or another was constitutionally impermissible.

Under U.S. jurisprudence, how could a subsidy be constitutionally impermissible? To give adequate answer to this question, I must allude to something in the U.S. Constitution that is not found in the Maltese Constitution—namely, a clause that prohibits the establishment of a religion. As drafted and intended, the establishment clause was an important partner with the free-exercise clause that secured religious freedom; it was later judicial interpretation that for a half-century turned it into a weapon of exclusion hostile to religion.

By this clause, the founders of the American Republic meant no national church, and they further meant that any state church—that is, a church given special acknowledgment by a state—would not be disestablished by the creation of a national government. In other words it was a two-pronged protection for religious belief. On one level, the national government would not create a church that would compete with the state-established church. And on the second level, the national government would not interfere with a state’s choice to have an established religion.

While that was the original meaning of the clause, it came to mean something else in litigation. First of all, the principle came to mean not just no national church but no state church either, and hence a promise on the part of the government not to make any law “respecting an establishment” of religion—especially one already established at the state level. Instead, the national government—through the judiciary—made a new promise that there would be no established church at the national or state level. This broader promise to avoid religious establishment was a diminishment of the sovereign power of the states, but since it was conferring a larger field of freedom for individuals, it was accepted.

Far more controversial is what followed: namely, that the establishment clause meant the imposition of constitutional disfavor on religion. It is not normally put in those stark terms, but that is what it came to mean. This hostility to religion is normally described as maintaining strict neutrality between religion and no religion. At first blush, it seems neutral, but what results is something entirely different. Instead, the recital of neutrality between religion and no religion imposes an affirmative duty to remove all evidence of faith and religious belief from the public space: not just crucifixes on classroom walls, but also organized prayers, Christmas displays and even religious symbols on the seals of our cities (for example, the city and county named for our Lord’s angels, Los Angeles. While it never became this extreme, the same principle could require renaming a good number of U.S. cities, like those honoring St. Francis (San Francisco) and St. James (San Diego), among others. It was only a matter of time before the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance were challenged in court. That case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court but ultimately ended with no definitive ruling because the father who argued that his daughter ought not to be exposed to that Pledge of Allegiance did not have custody of her, so he did not have standing in court.

By contrast to the exclusionary force of secularism, secularization is quite different. Secularization is a natural outgrowth of the recognition of religious freedom as an aspect of human dignity. The principal Vatican document on religious freedom is “Dignitatis Humanae” (1965), in which the Second Vatican Council makes clear that the protection of religious freedom is not a protection hinged on the correctness or the legitimacy of a person’s freely chosen faith, but simply upon the created nature of the individual human person who must be allowed to determine and ascertain what faith traditions to follow. Thus, it is no affront to religious belief if society chooses to rest on a day that largely coincides with the majority Sabbath. The practice has been undertaken so long that its religious origin has receded into cultural tradition. By contrast, when the establishment clause is interpreted as giving no preference to religion over non-religion, then we are endorsing an agnostic or atheistic ideal that is directly in competition with religious belief.

Secularism is not an exercise of freedom but its antithesis, for it denies the ability of men and women to choose their own faith. Secularization is the outgrowth of multiple people making a cultural choice based upon faith which becomes over time a cultural practice with its own independent purpose beyond its religious origin. Secularization as a concept is neutral among religions, but it does not obligate the law to be neutral between religion and no religion. It is within the ambit of individual human right to ascertain whether to pursue the path of faith; it is not the choice of the government. Moreover, individual religious freedom is not offended when a government chooses to endorse a religion (as Malta has) or refers to the corporate, self-evident principle that rights flow from a transcendent Creator (as the United States does) or says nothing about the origin of human rights (as does the European Union) at all. With careful drafting that honors the free exercise of different faiths, the only model of governance that truly offends religious freedom is either one that prohibits belief (as some Communist regimes did) or by the false neutrality of secularism effectively denies any reference to religion.

Before leaving the relationship between the misinterpretations of the U.S. establishment clause and of secularism, I need to reference a very recent U.S. Supreme Court decision. The noteworthy establishment case is Town of Greece v. Galloway(2014), which concerns the constitutionality of prayer before local decision-making bodies. These bodies include town or city councils, which are normally govern matters of land-use planning, traffic congestion, building safety and other permitting or licensing related to common occupations. A lower court had interpreted the establishment clause as denying a local council the right to begin proceedings with a prayer—at least under the circumstances where the prayers offered were overwhelmingly Christian in content. The lower court had felt the council had made little effort to be inclusive of other faiths.

The U.S. Supreme Court in a 5 to 4 decision reversed the decision, allowing prayer except where it was used to denigrate other beliefs, as a proxy for a hidden favoritism, or to manifest coercion or a desire to proselytize. While prayer before state legislatures had long been allowed as a matter of history and tradition, the plaintiffs argued that prayer before town councils, which involve more give-and-take between citizens and officials, inherently coerced non-believers. On the record before them, the court found none of this subtle coercion, but admitted that the matter was “fact sensitive.” That fact sensitivity, however, should not be taken to mean that the court will involve itself as a censor to remove particular sectarian references to Jesus or Yahweh or Allah.

Do fact sensitivity and a new appreciation for the tradition and history of prayer in public places locate the United States and Europe in the same inclusionary category? Would the United States and the European Union decide the crucifix or particularistic religious symbol case in the same way today? Not quite. It is premature to place the United States in a category different from the exclusionary one suggested in the discussions of my soon-to-be-published book on the topic, "Secularism Crucified," featuring commentary from a range of international scholars.

Nevertheless, there is little question that the decision represents a course correction for the Supreme Court, aligning it more closely with the side of U.S. culture that welcomes an inclusionary attitude most easily. Where, when or over what topics might this inclusionary attitude manifest itself, and where will it be resisted? Its manifestation will be found in symbolic matters rather than in the perennial trouble spots of abortion, divorce, bioethics and embryonic stem cell research.

In summary, the divergence between the United States and the European Union over religious displays in public has narrowed in favor of including even particularistic religious reference. The U.S. Supreme Court is likewise in agreement that the establishment clause does not demand neutrality between religion and no religion, because it is not neutrality at all, but disguised anti-religious secularity. That being said, the dissent by Justice Elena Kagan should not be overlooked. It raises the commitment behind the First Amendment protection of religious freedom that in the United States all citizens are equal. That equality, the dissent conceded, “did not necessitate that town councils be a ‘religion free zone,’” but it did require sensitivity to the promise of the First Amendment that “every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share in her government.” This principle is of great importance insofar as journalists pointed out that all of the justices in the majority of the recent opinion were Catholic, and the dissent Jewish. Thus far, the religious identities of the justices are only a softly spoken point of interest and not a matter of public alarm.

Whither Islam?

It must be asked whether Islamic belief is compatible with democratic government. Because of discriminatory teaching against women and its rigid rather than dynamic nature, a fundamentalist strain of Islamic belief was held by the European Council of Human Rights as not compatible with democracy. The military coup that displaced President Morsi also suggests incompatibility. There is no democratic justification for discrimination against women or the arrest and prosecution of nonviolent political opposition. But radical fundamentalism is not the singular interpretation of Islamic teaching. Others more expert than myself have commented upon what constitutes the full and accurate scope of Islamic belief, but some Muslim adherents do advance instruction from the Koran that is neither discriminatory on invidious grounds nor an imposition of coerced belief. For this reason it seems that religious freedom and democracy can coexist with Islamic belief.

The proponents of religious freedom by means of social media and constitutionalism will not be surprised to find that secularist opposition is fueled by the usual sources of atheist challenge. For example, Richard Dawkins has used his Nobel Prize in the sciences to advocate against the cultural significance of religion, though his writing reserves special denigration for Islamic belief. Like a movie actor who seeks to use celebrity to enlighten others well beyond the actor’s field of special competence, Mr. Dawkins has borrowed from his obvious gifts in the biological sciences to indulge in a broadside attack on Muslims. For example, he chastised Muslims for not being well represented in the ranks of his fellow Nobel recipients. Nathan Lean, who has published an insightful book on the subtle and not-so-subtle aspects of Islamophobia, countered that even putting aside the lack of Muslim presence on the Nobel selection committee, Muslims have received a half dozen peace prizes. Mr. Lean’s response to Mr. Dawkins is witty and often cutting, sometimes painfully so. What cannot possibly pass for reasoned judgment, however, is the categorical supposition that all error has religious origin in general or Islamic origin in particular.

Neither Islam nor any other faith can be tendered as the direct cause for the ills of the world—violence, poverty, illiteracy, public or private corruption—nor can faith lay claim to being the singular antidote erasing those deficiencies, as Western believers have on occasion bragged. The human condition does not lend itself to simplistic summation; any effort to give it one will be ill-fitting and necessarily stereotypical. Nevertheless, Mr. Lean has sagely observed:

The debate over New Atheism and Islamophobia often attracts polar extremes. At one end are those who claim that identifying prejudices towards Islam in the statements of people like Dawkins and calling them out in spaces such as this implies a love for, and defense of, everything related to that faith. At the other end are those who object to any critique of Islam and in knee-jerk fashion render any inquiry of the religion or its tenets as Islamophobic. Yet, it can be possible to detest discrimination towards Muslims and also disagree with some, or even all, of Islam’s teachings. It can also be possible to unpack and criticize Muslim positions on issues like women’s rights or minority rights or other topics without resorting to tired generalizations and stereotypes.

For example, the Islamic perception of human rights emphasizes that the rights first belong to Allah, then to the community and then to individuals. Moreover, Islamic conceptions of rights cannot be easily divorced from responsibility or duty. Rights and duty are correlative. And in an echo to the proclamation of rights being derivative of a Creator or transcendent source, as in the Declaration of Independence, Islamic conceptions of rights give priority to their divine origin as a means of ensuring the correct priority of rights, such that the basic right to life cannot be subordinated in any fashion to the rights of property or economic advantage.

The Joyful Wisdom of Francis

The election of Pope Francis is further sensitizing us to the need to get beyond the deadening forces of materialism that the people of every country, whether new or old, need to rethink. The papal message responds to the yearning of all human persons and asks us how cultures might be alternatively measured. It is a fool’s game to substitute consumerism, however robust, for personal excellence and an ethic of service and empathy for those who struggle. The Islamist is misled if he or she thinks that either democracy or Christianity is satisfied with these thin economic reports.

Pope Francis’ use of social media can enliven this reorientation away from mere economics to justice, but it must be matched, in my judgment, by a church-inspired effort to write new constitutions. At present it is not proceeding in this way—at least not entirely. In Libya, the last nation of the Arab Spring revolt, there is a Draft Constitutional Charter for the Transitional Stage. There are operational or process provisions that protect property. For example, Article 16 provides that “property shall be inviolable. No one owner may be prevented from disposing of his property except within the limits of the law.” Power is located in a more or less executive arm of the transitional national council, elected from local councils, with the voting strength of the local councils determined by population. There are provisions for fair trial and independent judges, though their appointment is a bit unclear. Most noticeable is the following: “Islam is the Religion of the State and the principal source of legislation is Islamic Jurisprudence (Sharia).” Perhaps this provision is not surprising, but it is a proposition that Turkey has rejected, with the affirmation of the European Convention on Human Rights. It is also a radical departure from the 1951 constitution when the pre-Qaddafi country was clearly a democratic parliamentary system. Article 21 of the old constitution reads: “Freedom of Conscience shall be absolute. The State shall respect all religions and faiths and shall ensure to Libyans and foreigners residing in its territory freedom of conscience and the right freely to practice religion so long as it is not a breach of public order and contrary to morality.”

The draft constitution—not for better, only for worse—thus inserts itself unhelpfully and divisively into cultural matters. At a time when more prosaic legal infrastructure is still under construction and basic civil order is still in doubt, the draft constitution presumes to referee competing faith traditions from a Sharia-based perspective. No disrespect is meant when it is observed that the many differences among and within Christian and Judaic denominations or sects (the other Abrahamic descendants) exist and that resolving the definitive meaning of a faith tradition has frequently complicated its usefulness to address the secular philosophical claims of utility, libertarianism and autonomy, and corresponding duties to families and the public community. It is unknown how this will work out and whether the weak promise in the transitional document allowing “non-Moslems the freedom of practicing religious rituals” actually ensures religious freedom for all.

There has always been a vibrant debate about the relation of constitutionalism and justice. The U.S. constitution recites as one of its purposes the establishment of justice, but it does little to define the concept. If one took the call for justice seriously, however, governance would be anchored, in Catholic terms, less on the material (maximizing wealth) or the libertarian conceit (maximizing freedom from obligations to another) and more on what Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas would associate with governing structures, namely, the pursuit of friendship, the common good, virtue and a life well lived. American legal education unfortunately for the last 30 or more years has been dominated by the law and economics nostrums of laissez-faire, trickle down and similar reasons to disfavor distributive justice. Libertarians have made efforts, most recently through the Tea Party, to confine human freedom to the revolutionary slogan of “don’t tread on me.”

There is a counter-push. John Rawls made a decent run, for example, at justifying greater equality by cleverly appealing to life’s uncertainty and thereby securing our willingness to be put behind a “veil of ignorance.” Not knowing whether we would be the son of Mitt Romney or the daughter of a homeless, single mother would ensure our own minimum care or resource fairness along with others who are less fortunate, if that be our lot. Note, however, that none of these prevailing worldviews address virtue in the Aristotelian sense. Mr. Rawls in his later work even prohibits that discussion of virtue from a religious perspective, or at least boxes it in, to prevent belief from being relied upon directly. Instead, he urges that we speak in the secular terms of so-called “public reason.” Mr. Rawls, of course, meant the exclusion of religious insight as a means of avoiding religious hatreds. As discussed, however, this strategy also results in censorship and too great a loss of the capacity of faith to guide and enrich this life.

Is there a constitutional structure that can avoid the secular and sectarian extremes? Frankly, there has to be a better alternative than either the favoritism of one faith or the exclusion of them all. Libya’s draft secures the vesting of property and contract rights, while also proclaiming the establishment of Islam as the religion of the country, with Sharia “the principal source of legislation,” while guaranteeing for non-Muslims “freedom of practicing religious rituals.” On the surface, this may turn out to be comparable to Malta with its establishment of Catholicism and robust guarantee of religious freedom for non-Catholics, but it remains to be seen if the freedom of “religious ritual” is broad enough to secure religious pluralism. Quite obviously, neither Libya in transition nor Malta has chosen the U.S. model of a dual security for religious freedom, with the government neither establishing nor prohibiting matters of faith.

This is not to proclaim the U.S. Constitution best for all times and circumstance. In this regard, Robert F. Kennedy once thoughtfully asked why the gross national product includes bullets and emergency rooms, but not an accurate measure of the health of children, the quality of their education, the strength of marriages and so forth. These aspects of human happiness are what we dearly desire, but we have created constitutional governments that measure and give us much less. Could this inquiry into human happiness or satisfaction be more directly addressed in the newly drafted constitutions, rather than imposing Sharia—or for that matter, the Catechism of the Catholic Church—on those who do not believe?

This is not the place to make further detailed findings of the constitutional drafting efforts in the Arab Spring nations, but Stephen C. Calleya, an analyst of international relations in the Mediterranean, reveals that democracy has been transplanted outside the West pointing to the existence of democratic regimes in Asia where Western ideas do not dominate. Perhaps by attempting to anchor constitutional democracy on something nobler than wealth and autonomy, the higher calling and expectation would be the nutrient necessary for democracy to take root in Arab lands and avoid the violent ineffectiveness of near-failed states.

It is not just the fate of the Arab Spring nations that depends upon successful constitutional drafting. President Obama in Cairo launched an interfaith initiative to promote mutual understanding and respect. Much remains to be done, and this can be witnessed in the distress and persecution felt by migrants from Eritrea, Somalia and Nigeria as they flood into Malta and Italy. Efforts to integrate these migrant populations into larger Europe have encountered resistance, in part traceable to the sour economic conditions in parts of the European Union. As a matter of humanitarian assistance and good will, the U.S. State Department had authorized the embassy in Malta to resettle roughly 800 migrants and their families in the United States. I assume this effort continues.

Economic and cultural integration will always meet resistance, especially in times of scarcity. Would it not be better to establish the rule of law and thereby invite more fully the economic trade and investment it warrants in order to give the populations of these African nations not the desire to leave behind dear family and the familiarities of home, but to transform that home into a venue of economic opportunity and personal freedom, including that of the religious kind?

The luxury of looking down upon Tahrir Square from the ivory tower is no longer available. The blood is flowing into that square and many others around the globe. The tourniquet needed to stop the bleeding is in part the hard work of creating an edifice of a government that does not presume to know the answer to why we are here and where we are going, but is encouraging of every religious tradition that is willing to instruct and to propose, without coercion or violence, on these perennial matters of humanity. It is by means of statecraft and the resulting governing structure that Catholics are able to check the effort of secularism to reduce the faith to triviality, irrationality and privacy. The private sphere is essential not because that is where religion should be consigned, but because that is where its persuasiveness can be assayed in relation to human truth in its continuing dialogue and influence upon the public sphere.

Social Media and Freedom

Pope Francis recently reflected, “Christians in social media are becoming citizens of a digital continent.” And how is this citizenship to be used? “To listen; to converse and to encourage,” said Francis. The digital arena challenges us as the body of Christ to engage in ways that only the Holy Spirit directs. No one should underestimate the power of Facebook to help organize an oppressed people to rise up against their oppressor. The pope himself illustrates how authority and celebrity can come together to move the unmovable.

Malta, of course, by proximity has had a front seat to witness the ups and downs of the Arab Spring. As much uncertainty as these uprisings triggered we cannot forget that they followed decades of authoritarian oppression in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. These denials of basic freedoms led to the unsurprising consequence that few corporate entities around the world were willing to invest long-term in countries where economic opportunity might become the fund of an entrenched dictator.

It is said that social media like Facebook and Twitter brought thousands of oppressed people into Tahrir Square in Egypt and the equivalent places in Tunis and Tripoli. If social media was the proximate cause (or more precisely, means) of bringing the people to confront reality, it clearly demonstrated that there can be but a short distance from an invincible virtual reality and a deadly actual one.

Prior to the events of spring 2011, none of the oppressors likely gave the time of day to social media, and they likely would have scoffed at the notion that their earthly kingdoms could so easily topple in the face of a few keystrokes and an accompanying human passion for freedom. But Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi is in the grave, Hosni Mubarak in his cell and other ruthless strongmen deposed. The power of the social media can be great.

Yet the power of removal is not to be considered apart from the question of “what next?” It is not clear that the medium of social media invites that discussion in the same way as face-to-face planning to topple a dictatorial regime. The distortions of social media may even partially account for the misreading of actual human intelligence. This misreading has likely contributed to the loss of life on both sides—one example being the tragic death of my friend and colleague, Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.

Pope Francis gives no quarter to so-called “sourpusses” who see injustice and do not act to correct it. So I shall not be one. What does a non-sourpuss do with social media that has proven itself capable of taking apart the playgrounds of strongmen but has yet to demonstrate the strength of the gentlest man to form community? Francis says that we should “give the soul to the internet” and in so doing challenge the modern culture to be a true invitation to service in the fullness of friendship.

Facebook is often mocked, and rightly so, for applying the word “friend” to someone who has casually bumped into another person’s assembly of pictures and other memorabilia. If a person becomes a friend by the click of a mouse but is incapable of empathy, then he or she is hardly a true friend. Such a concept of friendship might suit the untrustworthy politician and sales personnel where a friendly demeanor needs to last only as long as the need for votes or the 90-day warranty is still in effect. Likewise, the heart of a friend usually wants to say more than 140 characters on twitter. There is more to be said from the human heart even to a stranger, let alone to someone labeled as a friend by a website. In this regard, it is said that a “like” on Facebook is nice, but it is not a donation. Nor does it constitute a commitment to emerge from a social cave in service to others.

Yet in a busy world and on a busy day even 140 characters can change a person’s attitude toward seeking medical care in the face of nagging illness, or inspire a person to make a meal for others at home or simply to find the right words to thank a person who walks alongside us through life, saving us from being alone. Francis’ proposes that we give a soul to the internet and in this way social media can be an invitation toward community and service.

It is a noble and practical thought to view social media as a means to make the world better and better understood, as capable of remaking it in the image of Christ. Likes and friend affirmations may be thin, but the pictures and videos and music assembled there can be an offering of self to others in complete freedom that is also often evidence of the best of our talent.

In this respect, social media also expands our horizon. We can assume a great composer in earlier times also indulged in painting or sculpture as a means of living life to the full; it is not farfetched to see social media as giving a person of average abilities the chance to experience the joy of creative pursuits that would otherwise be out of reach. Those who might have suffered from stage fright in face-to-face situations are likewise encouraged by the semi-anonymous chance to speak their minds.

 Having personally been the victim of more than one hurtful expression on a blog, I can appreciate the parallel risk of abuse. The comments of the pope remind us of the importance of being welcoming as Catholics and Christians in social media. To be welcoming, of course, means observance of editorial limits where none are present or legally capable of being imposed, without tripping over free speech protection.

The Vatican has a social media site, and it most certainly teaches by example, but a few things warrant special note even for the church. Writers generally are admonished to know their audience. This responsibility is more difficult with social media, but it is certainly not impossible as social media entrepreneurs and commercial advertisers obviously target people based on free information supplied as a condition of registration for desired websites. The church will need to make responsible use of these targeted campaigns if it is going to make full use of social media. Moreover, given the capability of the web to trigger unemployed men in internet cafes to answer almost any call to come to a public square to protest both oppression and lack of economic opportunity, the church must exercise caution even in its proper denunciation of injustice.

In the context of the Arab Spring the virtual reality of large numbers in revolt became the actual reality. But that actual reality is under no obligation to follow the internet script. At one point, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was invited to walk among those demonstrating in Egypt in Tahrir Square. From the perspective of advancing freedom, Mrs. Clinton had little choice but to accept, even as she placed herself in considerable danger that was partially evident in her demeanor and swift exit.

Others, like my late colleague Ambassador Stevens, were not as fortunate. Mr. Stevens optimism was an inborn trait, aided and abetted by a love of the Arabic language and people, much of it derived from a tour in the Peace Corps in Morocco. Having given a green light to the unlimited potential of the Arab land, the State Department used both social media and a magazine spin-off to echo the optimism of Mr. Stevens. Shortly before reporting for duty as ambassador to Libya, the State Department had him prepare a video announcing his high hopes for democratic principles to take root and his intent to give emphasis to both economic growth and political stability.

Yet, if social media can talk of these things, it still cannot deliver them. Social media is good at gathering a mob; it is far less capable of drafting the kind of nuanced constitutional document that can accommodate diverse religious and political freedom. If the church wants its social media efforts to fulfill the goals of social justice, it would be highly advantageous to follow up its web instruction with the offer of guidance from constitutionalists who can design systems that honor human rights. The role of the church in these situations would be singularly valuable, since the advice of other nation-states, even those perceived as allies, is frequently untapped or rejected as diplomatic interference in another nation’s internal policies. The church’s commitment to social justice should encounter less resistance if offered honestly and not disinterestedly but with the concentrated personalist interest of the love of Christ.

Can social media really assist in the transformation of culture? Thus far, except in tiny, homogenous Tunisia, the new governments conceived in the Arab Spring are surviving, but not always by means compatible with democracy or human rights. Consider, for example, the mass trials of nonviolent protesters in Egypt, who were sentenced to death for little more than being members of the Muslim brotherhood. President Mohamed Morsi made numerous television appearances and posted an equal number of claims that the brotherhood was no longer a terrorist organization or one that disregarded Coptic Christians or other religious beliefs and practices. Yet the constitution that the Morsi government proposed contained a one-sided endorsement of Islam, the requirement that all legislative enactment reflect sharia law, and—except for a vague and lame promise to observe the religious prayer practices of others—no real defense for a non-Muslim to avoid culturally imposed sharia-based outcomes. This double-talk, not unsurprisingly, was found to be unacceptable as a matter of democratic principle.

From our side of the Atlantic it looks like the social media-abetted revolution has run its virtual reality course and crashed into the real desire of the people of Egypt to have stability over democracy, in the hope that stability will invite investment and greater prosperity.

Social media might disappoint Pope Francis because, as he recognized in “Evangelii Gaudium,” we live in a world of abundant information but far less thought. Prior to the advent of the internet, the world looked to traditional elites for guidance. These elites could be found mostly in academic circles, the leadership of major corporations, and of course the fathers of the church. It is not so much that these sources have disappeared, but they have been submerged into a sea of relative mediocrity. There are still authoritative voices that make their way onto the social media but if one actually looks closely, popular authoritarian voices are often not those holding an advanced degree in theology or business, but celebrities in sport, movie or song. Such celebrity may come with great wealth, but it is far from a guarantee of great wisdom. Not infrequently it is the opposite, where wealth has its usual distortions of consumerism and materialism.

Concluding Thoughts

It may sound as if I am laying blame for the world’s economic and political dysfunction upon social media. If it does I want to be careful not to fall into that category of sourpusses, as Pope Francis describes those who are unduly pessimistic about the human condition. Moreover, it is not fair to assign blame for cultural dysfunction to social media if the root of that dysfunction is an inability to appreciate a deeper cause.

In its recent decision on the prayer of local councils, the U.S. Supreme Court has caught the drift of the distinction between secularism and secularization, revealing that it now understands how the recital of neutrality between religion and no religion wrongfully imposes an affirmative duty to remove all evidence of faith and religious belief from the public space. Social media can play a constructive role in advancing religious freedom beyond the United States if the Vatican’s web efforts underscore how secularism excludes rather than invites all faiths to participate, i.e., that secularism suppresses or lessens freedom by putting religion off-limits as a choice of that freedom. Secularism pretends to neutrality when in actuality it is committing us to deny faith and to be deeply skeptical.

That same level of skepticism is not shown in the United States or elsewhere today toward the teaching of nonreligious “gods” held out as the source of morality—be it the morality of greatly accumulated wealth; the worship of the free market and its admitted capability to allocate resources to the highest valuing user; or demonstrating that secularism can choose progressive or conservative values as its measure of morality.

UPDATE: Subsequent to the posting of this article, the Supreme Court decided, 5-4, that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act exempted a closely held for-profit corporation from having to fulfill the insurance mandate providing contraceptives that the owner of the company believed act like. Reflecting many of the same concerns articulated above, the Court was very cautious not to extend this exemption to publicly-traded corporations or to civil rights protections that protect against discrimination in the workplace. In essence, Justice Alito writing for the majority believed that insofar as an individual could assert exemption under RFRA, there was no reason to withdraw that exemption when the individual chooses to act through a closely-held company.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

Advertisement

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Homeless people are seen in Washington June 22. Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Fla., chair of the U.S. bishops' domestic policy committee, released a statement Nov. 17 proclaiming that the House of Representatives "ignored impacts to the poor and families" in passing the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act the previous day. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)
The United States is thwarting the advancement of millions of its citizens, a UN rapporteur says.
Kevin ClarkeDecember 16, 2017
Why not tax individuals for what they take out of society instead of what they contribute?
Paul D. McNelis, S.J.December 15, 2017
Pope Francis will renew the mandate of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors for another three years, informed sources told America this week.
Gerard O’ConnellDecember 15, 2017
Worshippers recite the Lord's Prayer during Mass at Corpus Christi Church in Mineola, N.Y., on Oct. 13. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz, Long Island Catholic)
Making ancient Scripture sensible in contemporary languages will always prove a hazard-heavy challenge.
Kevin ClarkeDecember 15, 2017