Yesterday, bishops released a letter urging President Trump to “implement strong protections” for religious liberty. I share some of their concerns. I worry that in a country that has a tradition of valuing freedom of religion, that protection has been diminished by governmental definitions of “religion” that over-associate religion with houses of worship, and one-hour-on-Sunday kinds of moments. I don’t think religion can or should be constrained by what a secular government reflexively assumes religion is. (In a similar vein, I think that the practice of scientific research should not be overly constrained by what government officials reflexively but with little real knowledge think “science” is supposed to be about – though the practice of scientific research does not have the same kind of first amendment right.)
Catholics’ broader understanding of religion, however, depends on freedom of speech – our ability to name our faith. In turn, that freedom of speech relates to how freely the press is able to speak. Having a free press is one way of our being able to share our freedom of speech with each other, and with those in power. This is especially so in an age of social media use. Having a free press that can share what publicly-elected government officials are saying about their actions in turn allows for people to speak freely about policies and issues, including those that with which they vehemently disagree.
When a president or other official in power automatically assumes that all unflattering questions or statements are “fake news” (and simultaneously disenfranchises millions of Americans by insisting that the popular votes that put Hillary over the top must have been fraudulent, that person is seriously messing with both freedom of speech and freedom of religion.
I hope that the bishops will recognize the connectedness of these American legal rights. I hope they will worry, along with me, about whether “freedom of religion” on President Trump’s view will really be a victory, given the attendant concerns about speech and press. I hope they (and we all) will not be so enticed by an apparent victory on freedom of religion that we actually lose out, including on religious freedom.
Catholic practice of the faith does not depend on these freedoms as such. That is, Catholics in many times and places that have not had such freedoms have lived their faith anyway – often even at great cost to themselves.
That said, if we truly want to show concern for religious freedom, we ought to be as much concerned about freedom of the press and speech. I would love to see a letter that addresses all three of these together.