Christians are called to win the battle of ideas and values in secular society, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput said Tuesday.
In a speech delivered to the Alliance Defending Freedom Summit on Religious Liberty July 9, the archbishop said authentic religious freedom is essential in shaping a society of love, “the animating spirit of all authentically Christian political action.”
“I mean love in the biblical sense: love with a heart of courage, love determined to build justice in society and focused on the true good of the whole human person, body and soul.”
Chaput told the audience of lawyers from around the world that Christians must work to build an authentic vision of society built around the common good, and that “human progress means more than getting more stuff, more entitlements, and more personal license.”
“Real human progress satisfies the human hunger for solidarity and communion,” Chaput said. “When our leaders and their slogans tell us to move ‘forward into the future,’ we need to take a very hard look at the road we’re on, where ‘forward’ leads, and whether it ennobles the human soul or just aggravates our selfishness, our isolation, and our appetite for things.”
True religious freedom is crucial to serving real human progress, the archbishop said, drawing a distinction between it and “the half-starved copy of the real thing called ‘freedom of worship.’”
Sincere religious faith, Chaput said, fosters virtue and not conflict and is vital to advancing human dignity and building a humane society. But, he warned, “the creation myth” of the modern secular state is that religion is irrational, divisive, and violent.
“Secular, non-religious authority, on the other hand,” Chaput said, “is allegedly rational and unitive. Therefore, the job of secular authority is peacemaking; in other words, it must keep religious fanatics from killing each other and everybody else.”
“The problem with that line of thought is this: It’s simply an Enlightenment fantasy. Secular politics and ideologies have murdered and oppressed more people in the last 100 years — often in the name of ‘science’ — than all religions together have managed to mistreat in the last millennium.”
The archbishop continued to argue that much of the current debate about “religious extremism and looming theocracy” is a push by a political elite to “get religion out of the way” as a secularist consensus is formed and imposed.
“God is a competitor in forming the public will, so God needs to go,” Chaput said.
“Any claim that atheists, agnostics and a secularized intelligentsia are naturally more ‘rational’ than religious believers is nonsense. We’re all believers. There are no unbelievers… atheists just worship a smaller and less forgiving god at a different altar.”
Chaput said that while the American political system has many strengths, there is “no automatic harmony” between Christian faith and democracy, which is not an end in itself and cannot determine either the good or the true.
Unmoored from the objective nature of truth and goodness, “like every other form of social organization, democracy can become a form of idolatry and a license for inhumanity,” he said. Ensuring it does not requires that Catholics make a much more robust and authentic Christian witness in public life, one which does not compromise for a broader acceptance.
Citing the example of Catholic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s recent embracing of federal abortion funding, Chaput noted that Catholic advances into the cultural and political mainstream of American life have done little to Christianize American culture, but have “done a great deal to bleach out the zeal and faith of everyday Catholics, and to weaken the power of any distinctive Catholic witness.”
“The right to pursue happiness, which is so central to the American experience, does not include a right to excuse or ignore evil in ourselves or anyone else. When we divorce our politics from a grounding in virtue and truth, we transform our country from a living moral organism into a kind of golem of legal machinery without a soul.”
Noting that Christians are often accused of waging a “culture war” on issues such as abortion, sexuality, marriage, and the family, Chaput said that the conflict is real and being fought equally hard on the other side.
“They too are ‘culture warriors,’” he said. “Neither they nor we should feel uneasy about it. Democracy thrives on the struggle of competing ideas. We steal from ourselves and from everyone else if we try to avoid that struggle.”
The archbishop described democracy as built upon the pillars of cooperation and conflict, and that both were needed to make society function.
“What that means for people of faith is this: We have a duty to treat all persons with charity and justice. We also have a duty to seek common ground where possible, but that’s never an excuse for compromising with grave evil.”
“To work as our country’s political life was intended, America needs a special kind of citizenry; we need a mature, well-informed electorate of persons able to reason clearly and rule themselves prudently,” said Chaput.
“If that’s true — and it is — then the greatest danger to American liberty in our day is not religious extremism. It’s something very different. It’s a culture of narcissism that cocoons us in dumbed down, bigoted news, vulgarity, distraction and noise, while methodically excluding God from the human imagination.”
“All of us who are people of faith need to re-examine the spirit that has ruled our approach to American life for the past many decades. In forming our pastors, teachers, and catechists — and especially the young people in our schools and religious education programs — we need to be much more penetrating and critical in our attitudes toward the culture around us.”
“Sooner or later,” he warned, “a nation based on a degraded notion of liberty, on license rather than real freedom—a nation of abortion, sexual confusion, consumer greed, and indifference to immigrants and the poor—will not be worthy of its founding ideals. And on that day, it will have no claim on virtuous hearts.”
In a clearly personal address, Chaput noted that he is shortly to turn 75 and would be obliged to submit his resignation to Pope Francis. “When I sat down to write these remarks, I did it knowing that this talk will probably be the last one I give as Archbishop of Philadelphia. So the words matter.”
“If we want a culture of religious freedom, we need to begin living that culture here, today, and now. We live it by giving ourselves wholeheartedly to God — by loving God with passion and joy, confidence and courage, and by holding nothing back. God will take care of the rest.”