Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Religious Liberty and a Rhetoric of Reconciliation

Jack Newman


March 17, 2012

There is nothing quite like a good controversy to unite people of common interest…especially if that means uniting against a perceived threat.

Or at least, such was my expectation when I attended Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs conference on religious freedom on March 1, during which the Center unveiled a newly published book (edited by Timothy Shah), Religious Freedom: Why Now? Defending an Embattled Human Right.

Attending an event like this was a dream for an undergraduate philosophy and politics student like me—and not only because I got to mingle with renowned scholars like Dr. Robert George of Princeton University, one of the preeminent conservative thinkers of our day in politics, philosophy and law. The topic of the conference, religious liberty, was absolutely bursting with relevance given the controversy over the recent Administration mandate requiring many employers to provide contraceptive and abortifacient coverage for their employees in spite of deeply held religious objections.  Phrases in the book’s title, like “Why now?” and “An Embattled Human Right,” combined with the conference location at Georgetown, an eminent Catholic university, had me primed for an intellectual battle between religious academics and the current presidential administration. Popcorn in hand, I took my seat as a spectator, ready to watch the ensuing skirmish.

The war never came. In fact, those expecting a controversial debate over current events were treated to exactly the opposite—a reasonable defense of freedom for all world religions, and a gracious plea for civil discourse as we work out what that means in our political communities. A handful of snapshots from the day capture the atypical but exemplary tone set by this public conversation.

First, Professor George opened the conference with his keynote address. Remarkably, he used his 45 minutes on stage not to defend the particular freedom of his own Roman Catholic faith over and against recent actions by the Administration, but to argue for the acceptance of other world religions by the Catholic Church itself. George read extensively from Nostra Aetate of the Second Vatican Council, in which the Church is instructed to “reject nothing which is true and holy” in other religions. In short, Professor George called for thoughtful reform not primarily from other religious groups or the federal government, but for continued growth within Catholic thinking itself. The Church was implicated, not victimized.

Timothy Shah, primary author of Religious Freedom: Why Now?, picked up where Professor George left off. Shah began his talk by tearfully considering religious persecution, performed not against his father’s homeland of India, but by his homeland of India. With a lump in his throat, he recounted the systematic slaughter of Muslims by Hindus. He reminded the crowd that the reason they had gathered was quite simply that 7 out of 10 people live in countries with severe restrictions on religious freedom, and that the dignity of human beings in those nations is worth fighting for. In a stirring response to Shah’s talk, a Muslim man stood up from the audience and, while recognizing the atrocities committed against Muslims in India, assured Shah that many Muslim hands were stained with blood as well; his people, too, had been culpable of suppressing religious freedom. Guilt needed to be owned humbly by all parties for reconciliation and growth to take place.

What sort of rhetoric is this? How does it happen that groups who seem to have every right to point the finger choose instead to confess their own need for continued diligence in promoting religious liberty? In an era when most public “dialogue” surrounding religious freedom is designed to shut down conversation and vilify the “other,” the Berkley Center’s conference exemplified the very thing it was seeking: a reasonable, well-tempered path to public freedom for all religions.

Political and religious leaders in the United States would do well to learn from the message proclaimed by the Catholics, Evangelicals, Jews, Muslims and Hindus at Georgetown that day: Owning blame is not an embrace of weakness, but an embrace of our humanity. And although we might have every desire – and even the right – to point the finger at our enemies, critical self-examination is the way to lead by example on the road to reconciliation. “Do unto others” may be the Golden Rule of the Christian faith, but it’s also a pretty good start toward freedom for all faiths in the public square.

—Jack Newman is an intern at the Center for Public Justice. He studies Politics, Philosophy, and Economics at Eastern University in Philadelphia, PA.

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”