George Weigel: Religious freedom is a fundamental issue for Catholic voters

George Weigel, who wrote a biography of Blessed John Paul II, speaks at a press conference at the Vatican April 25. At right is Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) 

“I have long believed that the issue of the right to life of all is utterly fundamental to forming conscience,” George Weigel said in a recent interview for America Media’s “Voting Catholic” podcast. “And I believe that the defense of religious freedom for all is equally fundamental.”

Mr. Weigel is a distinguished senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the author of the best-selling biography of St. John Paul II, Witness to Hope. As Americans prepare to mail in their ballots or head to the polls, Mr. Weigel argues that Catholic voters should weigh not only individual presidential candidates but what their party, platform and administration will do to protect or undermine religious freedom.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Sebastian Gomes: For someone who doesn’t follow debates over religious liberty in the United States today, how you would describe the state of this issue in 2020?

I think it’s a very lively issue in 2020 and has been for the past 15 or 20 years or so. The meaning of religious liberty, the interpretation of the First Amendment to the Constitution...these have been contested issues throughout the history of the United States, but they have become particularly acute in recent years as certain other issues—the abortion issue, the question of the nature of marriage, other issues where personal lifestyle choices bear on other people’s convictions—have made religious freedom and the full exercise of religious freedom a serious question in American public life.

Religious freedom cannot be reduced to simply the right to participate in certain activities on Friday night and Saturday if you’re Jewish, Saturday night or Sunday if you’re Christian, Friday if you’re a Muslim. There is a public meaning to religious freedom. That is what is often contested today.

It seems like an issue that is so fundamental to the very makeup of the United States of America. So I wonder why it seems that we are in this situation where it would be questioned or even under threat. How do you think we got there?

We’ve gotten there through a process that was actually well analyzed by Father John Courtney Murray, a contributor to America magazine, 70 some years ago—a process in which the provision “no establishment of religion” in the Constitution’s First Amendment has tended to reduce the space for the free exercise of religion. So we get what are often, frankly, silly arguments about Christmas trees and prayers before high school football games. But then we get much more serious arguments about the free exercise of religious conviction in public life [and] the rights of conscience of individuals not to participate in certain activities which they deem a violation of their conscientious convictions.

Religious freedom cannot be reduced to simply the right to participate in certain activities on Friday night and Saturday if you’re Jewish, Saturday night or Sunday if you’re Christian, Friday if you’re a Muslim.

This is an ongoing negotiation in any democracy, and we’ve seen it argued in very often contentious ways during this pandemic. What is the right of the church to publicly conduct worship? What is the responsibility of the state to provide for public health? What happens when those things can seem to come into conflict? So this is something that is never going to be settled once and for all, but I think it is important to remember the history here. There was no reason for the framers of the Constitution to put into the First Amendment a clause enshrining the free exercise of religion except that they believed that that was good for American democracy. And they believed that any establishment of a national church, which is really what the establishment clause prohibits, was bad for the free exercise of religion.

Why is religious liberty so fundamental in the United States?

This is actually a reflection of the Lord’s teaching to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and what is God’s unto God. If there are things that are of God, that means there are some things that are not of Caesar. And that means Caesar is limited. And since the founders and framers very much believed in a limited state, they saw the protection of religious freedom as an essential part of putting barriers around the tendency of the modern state to occupy all the space in society.

Isn’t it a bit of a strange position to be in for Christians to be the great upholders of this principle of religious liberty while maintaining a majority and a lot of influence and power in this country?

I am not sure how influential Christian conviction is in running the affairs of the United States, but I think the deeper question is, whose accomplishment is religious freedom? The conventional telling of that story is that this is an accomplishment of the secular Enlightenment. I don’t think that is true. As I said a moment ago, I think the notion of religious freedom, the protection of religious conscience, goes straight back to the New Testament and to the Lord’s teaching that there are some things that are Caesar’s and that there are some things that are God’s and what is of God does not belong to Caesar. Caesar is limited. Caesar, to be just, must recognize the things of God.

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As my friend, Robert Louis Wilken, argued very persuasively in a recent book, the Christian defense of religious freedom, for everyone, goes back to the second century. And in that sense, I think through the convolutions and distortions of history, the deeper roots of religious freedom in the Western world are in fact Christian roots. They are not simply Enlightenment roots. Enlightenment added something to the mix, to be sure, but the Enlightenment-influenced founders and framers, for example, could appeal to the Puritan experience in America, which was an experience of exile from Mother England in the name of religious freedom.

It is a much richer patrimony than the conventional secular telling of the story would have it. And I think the community with the thickest account of religious freedom today, going back to the Second Vatican Council, is the Catholic Church.

Why is this question of religious liberty so important, specifically, to the Catholic Church? What is unique about their interest in it?

The Catholic Church defends religious freedom for everyone. I think that has to be stressed. We Catholics are not in the battle for religious freedom for sectarian purposes. We are in this for everyone and for the constitutional order. We do that because we believe it is true. We do that because we believe God wishes to be adored by people who are free and are not coerced into seeming to believe or to worship.

We Catholics are not in the battle for religious freedom for sectarian purposes. We are in this for everyone. 

We defend religious freedom because it puts limits on the state. And that is an important thing. And we defend religious freedom because it protects our people. It protects the conscience rights of doctors who do not wish to be involved in immoral activities. It protects the conscience rights of clergy to speak their minds. It protects the conscience rights of teachers to teach the truth of Catholic faith, even when that challenges certain secular shibboleths. And all of that is good for society. It makes for a much freer, richer public life than the cancel culture of political correctness, which is a real threat to religious freedom today.

I'm wondering what the case would be for prioritizing questions of religious liberty at this moment, in forming conscience for voting?

I have long believed that the issue of the right to life of all is utterly fundamental to forming conscience. And I believe that the defense of religious freedom for all is equally fundamental. No political figure in my lifetime’s experience is going to tick all the boxes on both of those issues. So it is a question of weighing not only individuals, as in a vote for president, but also parties and what parties are committed to.

I have long believed that the issue of the right to life of all is utterly fundamental to forming conscience. And I believe that the defense of religious freedom for all is equally fundamental.

Unfortunately, the 2020 Democratic platform is a real threat to religious freedom. It threatens to rinse out religious freedom and reduce it to a question of personal lifestyle choice rather than religious freedom being a matter that protects professionals—for example, doctors, nurses, other health care providers from being required by law to perform actions that they deem gravely immoral. This is pretty high up on the scale, it seems to me. Religious freedom [also] applies to the capacity of the church to take a stand in favor of a generous immigration policy, to take a stand for a genuine ecology that includes human ecology. This is all part of the package of religious freedom.

Some people have argued that by upholding one person’s religious freedom, we are actually discriminating against certain groups or certain other individuals. What do you make of that?

It’s the same as the wedding cake controversy in Colorado. The fact is that the baker in that question, exercising his religious freedom, was not trying to insult anybody. The plaintiffs in that case had a dozen other bakeries to which they could go. They were the ones attempting to impose a moral judgment on the baker. And people of just basically good manners would not do that. They would understand that this was a conscientious decision on the part of someone else with whom they had a fundamental disagreement, but they would not take this person to law when they had a dozen other remedies for their baking needs. There is a question of tolerance there, but it doesn’t seem to me to be on the part of the baker who was citing his religious convictions in this matter.

I think the truth of the matter is that the aggression on the religious freedom front today comes almost exclusively from hardcore secularists.

And I think the truth of the matter is that the aggression on the religious freedom front today comes almost exclusively from hardcore secularists. It does not come from religious people seeking to impose some sort of dogmatic template on all of society. The aggression comes from the secular world, and that aggression has been aided by this unfortunate notion that dominated the Supreme Court until very recently that the real driver of the First Amendment is “no establishment,” rather than the real driver being the free exercise of religion and “no establishment” being the means to that. I think this entire argument calls for a great deal of generosity on the part of everyone. But generosity, unfortunately, does not seem to be in ample supply in American public life today. Maybe Catholics can help do something.

Baking a cake might seem a little bit more trivial, but something more serious, more weighty for people might be something like L.G.B.T. parents adopting a child. They are trying to adopt a child from a Catholic or Christian adoption agency and being denied, like the case in Philadelphia. So what about those L.G.B.T. parents, who might be religious, who feel that they are being discriminated against?

I think the Catholic agency is entirely within its rights to say that we will place children in family situations which hundreds of years of human experience have taught us are best for the children. And if L.G.B.T. people wish to contest that at law, I don’t think they are really fighting about children. I think they are fighting to compel the Catholic Church to adapt its teaching on the morality of human love to their views. And the Catholic Church isn’t going to do that. And if the state acquiesces in this aggression against Catholic adoption agencies, the state is harming children because Catholic adoption agencies do a very good job for kids in need. So I think, again, this is a question of secular aggression attempting to advance an agenda other than that which presents itself in the immediate case, whether it is cake baking or adoption, and I think it should be resisted.

I am wondering how you approach your civic responsibility to cast a vote in November. How does all of this factor into your process of discernment?

It factors very heavily into it, but it is an across-the-board factoring. It is not just a question of the president. It is a question of the Senate, the House of Representatives. When my children were young and we talked about voting, I reminded them that you are not just voting for a person in the case of a presidential election; you are voting for all the people that that person will bring into office with them. I think the same is true for congressional and state legislative races. You’re not just electing an individual; you are electing a platform; you are electing somebody who is part of the party. All of this needs to be weighed in conscience, and then a prudential decision rendered.

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