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Freedom and Our Religious Heritage


Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson

Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson delivers remarks April 19 at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C. Archbishop Francis Chullikatt, the permanent observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, and Mother Agnes Mary Donovan, superior general of the Sisters of Life, also spoke at the event, which focused on challenges to religious liberty in the United States and throughout the world.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The supreme knight delivered the following remarks April 19 at the 8th annual National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, D.C.


We offer thanks for the blessings of American liberty, a freedom that, in its extent and its endurance, is unique in human history. We also affirm our determination to preserve that liberty, for us and for our fellow citizens, and to ask the Lord’s guidance in doing so.

Religious liberty — the freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment — has been essential to the founding, development and improvement of the American Republic.

There are times when we need that help more than others. This is such a time. I venture to say that never in our lifetimes has the religious liberty of the American people been as threatened as it is today.

Of some things, we should not need to be reminded. There are some truths and some historical realities that should not need repeating. But in today’s society, and in this year’s official Washington, we must repeat them. We must remind our fellow Americans, and especially those who exercise power, that religious liberty — the freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment — has been essential to the founding, development and improvement of the American Republic.

Before there was an American Revolution, there was what historians call the First Great Awakening, which swept through the colonies and transformed their outlook. The Second Great Awakening led to the abolition of slavery, as well as the other great reform movements of the 19th century. A third wave of religious energy led to reforms in education, labor and women’s rights.

Alexis de Tocqueville observed the profound connection between religion and liberty in our national life: “Religion does not give [Americans] their taste for freedom,” he said. “It singularly facilitates their use of it.”

We may ask: Is this historical connection between Christianity and liberty an accident of history, or is it something fundamental? Our Founders answered that question unequivocally. They declared that we are “endowed” by our “Creator” with inalienable rights.



George Washington’s Farewell Address insisted that religion and morality are “indispensable supports of our political prosperity,” warning that “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can be retained without religion.” And John Adams asserted, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Those views have echoed down through our history — perhaps most notably in 1961 when President John F. Kennedy, in his Inaugural Address, spoke of the rights for which our “forebears fought,” namely “the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.”

According to a poll we conducted for the 50th anniversary of that speech, 85 percent of Americans still agree with Kennedy’s statement.

This belief was also the driving force behind the life’s work of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In his historic Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Rev. King said that he and his followers “were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”

But perhaps we do need to be reminded that King’s letter relied upon our own Catholic natural law tradition. He cited St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.” And he asked, “How does one determine when a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.”

He then went on to say, “To put it in the terms of Saint Thomas Aquinas, an unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal and natural law.”

There you have the ancient teaching of the Catholic Church summed up by a Baptist preacher under arrest for living by it.

When you visit the new memorial to King on our national mall, read carefully the 14 quotations inscribed there. You will not find a single reference to God. Not one. Imagine how those in authority must have searched to come up with 14 quotes of Rev. King without one mention of the Almighty. There is no more shocking symbol of the ongoing campaign to drive religion out of our public life.

King’s statue looks across the Tidal Basin to the Jefferson Memorial, dedicated to the president who is now championed by secularists for inventing a “wall of separation” between church and state. Ironically, while the King Memorial was scrubbed of any reference to our Creator, in Jefferson’s memorial, the walls tell us, “The God who gave us life, gave us liberty.” And they ask us, “Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?” A great deal hinges on how we answer that question.

On the occasion of receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, Alexander Solzhenitsyn spoke of the ideological manipulation of history that occurred in Russia under Soviet communism. It was, he said, “a closing, a locking up, of the national heart, [and an] amputation of the national memory.” He warned that when this happens, a nation “has no memory of its own self. It is deprived of its spiritual unity. And even though compatriots apparently speak the same language, they suddenly cease to understand one another.”

Solzhenitsyn devoted his life to preventing the militant atheists in his country from destroying the soul of the Russian people by rewriting their history. How would Solzhenitsyn have viewed the controversy surrounding the King Memorial? Would he have seen it as preserving the spiritual unity of America or as one more symptom of a trend to separate Americans from their religious heritage?



In 1954, the Knights of Columbus was instrumental in having Congress place the words “under God” in the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance. Those words were placed in our pledge in part to mark a stark contrast between the ultimate source of our rights and the pretensions of the atheist totalitarian dictatorships of the 20th century.

Today, we find a new hostility to the role of religious institutions in American life at a time when government is expanding its reach in extraordinary ways. And it is not only because of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s contraception mandate. This may have gotten the most attention, but it wasn’t the first.

Arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC last year, the Obama administration sought unprecedented limits on the autonomy of churches and religious institutions. The administration argued that if any “ministerial exception” in employment exists, it should be strictly “limited to those employees who perform exclusively religious functions.”

That caused Chief Justice John Roberts to ask during oral argument whether even the pope could meet the administration’s definition of a religious minister. The Supreme Court unanimously disagreed with the administration, saying, “We are unsure whether any such employees exist,” because even the highest ranking churchmen have “a mix of duties.”

Similarly, the HHS mandate allows only the narrowest exemption for religious institutions. The exemption exists only for institutions that, among other things, hire and serve only members of their own faith.

As Cardinal Daniel DiNardo put it, “Jesus himself, or the Good Samaritan … would not qualify as ‘religious enough’ for the exemption, since they insisted on helping people who did not share their view of God.” Christians are called to reach beyond their own denominations in teaching “all nations,” considering everyone their “neighbor” and doing “good to those who hate” them.

In the Hosanna-Tabor case, the administration sought to impose a new definition of ministry so narrow that ministers didn’t fit it. In its HHS mandate, the administration insists on an exemption so narrow that organizations can qualify only by violating the teachings of their church.

Consider if the administration’s view in the Hosanna-Tabor case had prevailed. Churches and religious institutions would have found themselves at the mercy of what the Supreme Court unanimously characterized as “government interference with an internal church decision that affects the faith and mission of the church itself.”

Precisely the same can be said of the HHS mandate. A government willing to affect the faith and mission of the Church is a government willing to change the identity of the Church. And what can we expect in the future? The National Right to Life Committee makes a compelling case that the Obama administration’s “accommodation” for the HHS mandate — if accepted — paves the way for mandated coverage of “abortion on demand.”

But if the HHS mandate and the Hosanna-Tabor case have been among the most egregious assaults on religious liberty, they are not the only ones. Last year, the administration denied renewed funding of the Catholic Church’s work with victims of human trafficking. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had successfully administered the program for five years, but after the ACLU filed suit demanding that the program refer women for abortions and contraception, HHS restructured the program. As a result, highly qualified providers such as the Catholic Church are now barred from the program because they cannot, in good conscience, provide what HHS calls the “full range” of reproductive services — namely abortion and contraception. Once again, the administration’s logic is consistent: Faith-based groups may apply only if their “faith and mission” are acceptable to the government.

Earlier, the Obama administration applied a similar standard to individual rights of conscience when it “rescinded most of a federal regulation that protected workers who refuse to perform services they find morally objectionable” (Washington Post, Feb. 18, 2011). Health care workers now face the choice of holding onto either their religious beliefs or their jobs. In other words, if the health care institution provides services contrary to Catholic moral teaching, Catholic doctors and nurses need not apply.

And so, we see a new government intolerance of religion. Perhaps this is why Cardinal Francis George has referred to the Obama administration as “the most secularist administration I think we have ever had in this country.”

During his visit to Washington in April 2008, Pope Benedict XVI noted, “Christians are easily tempted to conform themselves to the spirit of this age” (cf. Rom 12:3). The spirit of our age is profoundly secular. And secularism accepts religion — if it accepts it at all — only on its own terms. Under this view, religion is subordinated to the political interests of the secular state. And it is precisely this subordination of religion to the state that the First Amendment seeks to prevent.

Let us be clear: We value religious liberty not only because it protects our personal autonomy; we value religious liberty because of the good that religion brings into the life of the individual believer and into the life of our nation.



Before he was elected pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote that “neither embrace nor ghetto” can solve for the Church the problem of secular society (Principles of Catholic Theology, 391). Instead, Cardinal Ratzinger counseled that we must constructively engage secularism. The question for us is: How do we as Catholics go about doing this in the United States today?

Last year, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told a NARAL luncheon, “We are in a war.” I sincerely hope we can put away such partisan rhetoric. We do not need a government that sees itself at “war” with its own citizens. We should counsel a different approach.

As Christians, we are called to be witnesses. But to be true witnesses, we must preserve our Catholic identity. And like St. Thomas More, awaiting execution in the Tower of London, we must preserve it especially from the heavy hand of government.

We are also called to sustain our witness through prayer. How appropriate, then, that our bishops have called upon us to take up a great fortnight of prayer for religious freedom from the vigil of the feasts of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More to July 4.

During the current HHS controversy, some have asked, “What kind of Christians would impose such a government mandate on our religious institutions?”

In December 1941, with Britain in mortal peril and America reeling after Pearl Harbor, Winston Churchill addressed the United States Congress. In that worst of times, he scorned the enemies of freedom and defiantly asked, “What kind of people do they think we are?” Today, with the same defiance, we can declare, “What kind of Catholics do they think we are?”

Do they really expect us to go gently into the dark night they are preparing for religious liberty in America? Do they not know that people who believe in “one holy catholic and apostolic church” can never agree to compromise our Church by entangling it in intrinsically evil acts? Do they not see that faithful Catholics will never accept cynical political strategies of “divide and conquer” to separate us from our bishops?

You and I have reason for hope. We have been successful in the past. Consider, for example, the national campaign in the 1920s by the Ku Klux Klan to close our Catholic schools. They succeeded in the state of Oregon until the Knights of Columbus and others pushed to have the law declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court. In its landmark decision in Pierce v. Society of Sisters, the Court protected the rights of parents — of all denominations — to guide the education and moral upbringing of their children.

When we seek by such means to preserve our own identity as Catholics, we are not a divisive force in society. To the contrary, actions that respect our religious diversity benefit all Americans.

We again recall Blessed John Paul II’s words at the beginning of his great pontificate: “Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ.” We live in a time when, from the standpoint of religious liberty, it seems that there are more doors closing than doors that are opening.

John Paul II often spoke of “a new springtime” of the Gospel. If he had been an American, he might have spoken of a new Great Awakening in America — one in which Catholics could play a greater role than ever before.

Every great religious renewal in America has led to an advance in civil rights — from the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights to the end of slavery and the pursuit of racial equality. But all of this has been achieved in the face of established power structures strongly and often violently opposed to these rights.

So this is a time for choosing — choosing whether as Catholics we will stand together to keep open the doors of religious liberty. If we do so, then we will make possible the next Great Awakening in America that will bring us closer to building that culture of life and that civilization of love about which John Paul II so often spoke. May we, like Blessed John Paul II, be not afraid in our choosing.