Harvard Professor’s Top Fear: American Indifference to Religious Freedom

The trend of Americans becoming less connected to religious institutions and looking upon spirituality as a private matter could hurt liberal democracies and undermine the cause of religious freedom, according to the head of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences.

Mary Ann Glendon, professor of law at Harvard University, spoke Sept. 20 at the Emory University Law School Center for the Study of Law and Religion on the topic of religious freedom. Her lecture was co-sponsored by the Aquinas Center of Theology and is part of the center’s silver jubilee year.

She was bringing to the forum insights and concerns that emerged last April when the Pontifical Academy considered the topic of religious freedom worldwide when they met in Rome, Italy. Glendon, appointed by Pope John Paul II and the first woman to serve as academy president, said she has also become more worried as she absorbed the material discussed there.

“As I reflected on the presentations at the Rome conference, I must say that I became … more uneasy about the status of religious freedom as a fundamental right,” Glendon said in her lecture.

“What was new, at least to me,” she said, “were indications that less value is being attached to religion and religious freedom in the places where I would have hoped that it was most secure—namely, in the minds and hearts of citizens in the liberal democracies, including the United States.”

In addition to its 37 members, who include non-Catholics, the academy invites outside experts to “help us achieve a clear understanding of whatever problem we are studying,” she said.

Among the presentations, she said, was a Pew Forum report that nearly 70 percent of the world’s people live in countries where there are “high restrictions” on religious freedom.

“Worldwide, 75 percent of victims of violent religious persecution are Christian,” she said.

In countries with “low” to “moderate” restrictions on religious freedom, Glendon said, there is evidence of an “erosion of conscience protection for religious individuals and institutions, restrictions on the autonomy of religious institutions, and inroads on the rights of parents regarding the education of their children.”

In addition, she cited a presentation by sociologist Nicos Mouzelis of the London School of Economics asserting that sociological changes in modern life—such as greater mobility, disconnection from “communities of memory and mutual aid” and the rise of individualism—are accelerating “non-churched religiosity” in Europe and the United States.

While studies have documented an increase in the proportion of Americans who describe themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” and who decline to affiliate with any organized religion, Glendon spoke to what this might mean to the social and political fabric of the country as well.

Religious Institutions Sustain Religious Freedom

Religious institutions are vital to sustaining religious freedom, she said, just as freedom of speech needs institutions like the press, universities, libraries and other associations to buttress an individual’s right to speak his or her mind on a topic.

“I am not aware of any recent survey asking Americans to rank the importance of religious freedom, but it is reasonable to assume that as the idea of religion as a private solitary activity spreads, interest in religious liberty will decline,” Glendon said.

Also, she said, religious institutions have a critical role in the maturing of people who will contribute to the common good by becoming good citizens and developing moral principles that will guide their behavior and that they will take into the public arena.

It is paradoxical, she said, that public attitudes have become less positive toward the value of religious institutions “just when path-breaking work has begun to document the societal benefits of religious freedom.”

“Many political theorists have simply assumed that a free society can get along fine without religion, and that the more closely religion is confined to the private sphere, the freer everyone will be,” Glendon said.

Contemporary thinkers now “have begun to speak out about the political costs of neglecting a cultural inheritance in which religion, liberty and law are inextricably intertwined, and to question whether liberal states can afford to be indifferent or hostile to religion,” she said.

“They have begun to ask questions like: Where will citizens learn to view others with respect and concern … ? What will cause men and women to keep their promises, to limit consumption, to answer their country’s call for service, and to lend a hand to the unfortunate? Where will a state based on the rule of law find citizens and statesmen capable of devising just laws and then abiding by them?”

“And so, the wheel of elite opinion may—just possibly—be coming back full circle—to the views of those who, like George Washington and Alexis de Tocqueville, held that the free society was profoundly dependent on a healthy moral culture nourished by religion,” Glendon said.

In an interview prior to her lecture, she said that there seems to be a lack of understanding of the good religious institutions provide to foster a free democratic society.

“We take for granted our free, liberal, democratic societies. We sometimes tend to forget that … there has to be something that holds them up,” she said.

“What holds them up? What causes you to have a sufficient proportion of citizens who are willing to be public-spirited, to care about their neighbors? It’s hard to think of where those qualities come from if they don’t come from the religious communities that have been so much of a part of the fabric of American life,” the former ambassador to the Vatican said.

These questions are matters of very serious debate in political philosophy, Glendon noted, and not easily resolved.

The “central worry” in her speech, she said, is that if religion is increasingly viewed as a private matter only “we lose … a sense that religious freedom is important.”

“Because if religion is just a matter of being spiritual but not religious, if it’s just something you do yourself in private, then you don’t need any constitutional or legal protection to do that, do you?” said Glendon.

“Religious freedom really drops not only in the honor roll of rights as far as the law is concerned, but it ceases to be much of a concern for a certain proportion of the population.”

Additionally, she said, “what political theory tells us (is) the more a society is broken up into atomized individuals, the more prone that society is to tyranny because you are losing the intermediate groups … that stand between the citizen and the state and that buffer the power of the state and that protect individuals.”

However, she also spoke of aspects of religious life that are countering this trend and strengthening worldwide. She noted the enormous faith shown by Catholic youth at World Youth Days and the capacity of both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI to inspire and relate to the faith of young people.

She also noted the skill of Pope Benedict in speaking in a nuanced way about the value of a secular society that, in a positive way, can protect the rights of religious minorities from persecution.

Religious Freedom Supports Social Relations

Also, she said, despite a stereotype that strong religious convictions can be divisive for society, there is recent empirical data developing that religious freedom is “very good for social relations, for democracy, for equality, for women’s advancement, for all the things we treasure in a liberal democracy.”

Observing the life of the Catholic Church worldwide during her service at the Vatican, where she served for 10 years on the Pontifical Council on the Laity, Glendon added, she has become aware of “the great lay organizations in the world” that have statutes developed with the approval of the Holy See.

“What takes the place of the parish for people who are constantly on the move? I think that we have yet to explore the great potential that the lay organizations have,” she said. “I think they do provide formation and fellowship for a mobile population.”

“What I said about the lay associations I say every chance I get,” she added, “but I find in the United States that bishops and priests are a little nervous about the big, powerful, booming lay organizations that have provided formation and fellowship for Catholics all over the world, more than they have here.”

“I think a big hurdle is to overcome that nervousness and understand that in a world where people are geographically mobile, this is a great source of energy and renewal,” Glendon said.

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