The following is from an interview in the June 28th issue of the National Catholic Register with Professor Robert George, who was elected Chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom on June 11th. Here are some of the questions in the interview:
What can U.S. citizens do to actually help religious liberty abroad?
What can citizens do? Press their government! The U.S. government has enormous leverage. Not in all countries — we don’t have much in North Korea — but we do have leverage with allies such as Saudi Arabia and with important trading partners such as China. So we need to use that leverage. And the people of the U.S. need to press our political leadership to use that leverage.
What’s the connection between promoting religious liberty abroad and being able to maintain and defend it at home?
Here, let me speak personally as a scholar and human-rights activist, not as chairman of the commission. Under our authorizing statute, we have no authority to intervene in or even comment on domestic issues.
In my personal opinion, however, the veiy best way we can advance religious freedom abroad is to honor religious freedom at home. That’s a simple matter of avoiding hypocrisy and setting a good example for the world.
We — as a people who pride ourselves on respect for freedom and as a nation “conceived in liberty dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” — need to show the world what it means to respect religious freedom and other fundamental civil liberties, such as the freedom of speech, press and assembly.
How important is the Fortnight for Freedom for making these connections?
I think the fortnight [which runs through July 4] is very important, because American Catholics, like most Americans, are generally not as aware as we need to be of the threats to religious freedom both at home and abroad. The Fortnight for Freedom is, above all, an opportunity for informing ourselves and our fellow citizens.
The Church is helping us to be aware of the suffering of persecuted people abroad, not just Catholics and Christians, but people of all faiths: Buddhists, Bahais, Ahmadiyya and Rohinga Muslims, Yazidis and others. The Church wants us to be aware of what’s happening in those places and be aware of the erosion of religious-freedom rights here in the U.S. We need to know the facts about the appalling contraception and abortion-drug mandates that the current administration is still seeking to insert into the national health-insurance system under the Affordable Care and Patient Protection Act.
Similarly, when it comes to the use of anti-discrimination laws to force people to participate in ceremonies and events that violate their religious beliefs, rights and conscience, we need to know what’s going on, so that we can stand up for freedom and the rights of conscience.
How does the marriage debate in the United States impact religious freedom?
Again, I need to speak only in my individual capacity and ask you to be clear about that. We, the commission, have no position on these domestic issues.
To me, we need to be deeply concerned about the erosion of religious freedom as a result of the redefinition of marriage and the application of anti- discrimination laws to religious believers and others who morally object to same-sex sexual partnerships or their designation as “marriages.” It is happening here, just as it is happening in Canada and in European nations. This is a violation of people’s fundamental rights to act with authenticity and integrity in line with their consciences, where respect for conscience is consistent with justice and the common good.
The very basis of the right to freedom of conscience is in the moral reality that people have a duty to act in line with their consciences as best they can form them. That duty is in turn rooted in the values of authenticity and integrity, especially in matters of faith. Human beings are damaged, they damage themselves morally, when they violate their consciences. And that damage is done whether the act is freely chosen or whether it is performed under the pressure of culture or law.
We can’t do anything to force people to act in line with their consciences; laws can’t reach conscience in that way. But we can ensure that laws don’t impose themselves unjustly on people’s consciences, forcing them to act in ways that are inauthentic.
And the Fortnight for Freedom is really lifting that up, making us more aware that: (a) the values of integrity, especially in matters of faith, are essential to human flourishing, and (b) people do have a moral obligation to form their consciences properly and then to act in line w ith their consciences.