Pope Francis and the Need for Christian Political Liberalism

Pope Francis’s visit to the United States has reminded Americans of the vital and positive role of religion in a healthy democratic polity. While pundits speculate on whether or not the pope’s visit will have any practical effect on politics, I remain hopeful that his words will do something to challenge the myth – popular among secularist liberals – that liberal democracy can survive without its religious foundation.

This is important because in a time when the numbers of the religiously unaffiliated (the “nones”) are surging, fewer and fewer people grasp just how theological are the origins and foundations of political liberalism. My politics students are always surprised to learn how central religion was to the political commitments and conduct of America’s founding generation, not to mention its pervasive role in federal and state governments throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The pope touched on liberalism’s dependence on religion early in his speech to Congress. Invoking Moses as both jurist and prophet, he declared to the representatives that “the figure of Moses leads us directly to God and thus to the transcendent dignity of the human being. Moses provides us with a good synthesis of your work: you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.”

Echoing a speech by President Obama several months ago, he acknowledged that religion is often used for evil, but insisted that in America religion has typically served to strengthen society by encouraging fraternity and love. Thus he called Americans to act according to the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This rule, he argued, is the basis for human compassion for “human life at every stage of its development.”

Francis’s speech to the United Nations was even more pointed. While praising the UN for its role in promoting international law and human rights, he reminded his international audience that human rights depend on sanctity given each human being by God. The right to life provides the foundation for “pillars of integral human development” that are “essential material and spiritual goods: housing, dignified and properly remunerated employment, adequate food and drinking water; religious freedom and, more generally, spiritual freedom and education.”

There is, he claimed, “a moral law written into human nature” that demands “absolute respect for life in all its stages and dimensions.” Thus, he warned,

Without the recognition of certain incontestable natural ethical limits and without the immediate implementation of those pillars of integral human development, the ideal of ‘saving succeeding generations from the scourge of war’ (Charter of the United Nations, Preamble), and ‘promoting social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom’ (ibid.), risks becoming an unattainable illusion, or, even worse, idle chatter which serves as a cover for all kinds of abuse and corruption, or for carrying out an ideological colonization by the imposition of anomalous models and lifestyles which are alien to people’s identity and, in the end, irresponsible.

The pope was partly thinking about what nature teaches about the differences between men and women here, but he was also talking about the importance of protecting the environment.

[E]very creature, particularly a living creature, has an intrinsic value, in its existence, its life, its beauty and its interdependence with other creatures. We Christians, together with the other monotheistic religions, believe that the universe is the fruit of a loving decision by the Creator, who permits man respectfully to use creation for the good of his fellow men and for the glory of the Creator; he is not authorized to abuse it, much less to destroy it.

Thus it is a “certain sacredness of created nature” that calls modernity to embrace a “higher degree of wisdom, one which accepts transcendence, rejects the creation of an all-powerful elite, and recognizes that the full meaning of individual and collective life is found in selfless service to others and in the sage and respectful use of creation for the common good.”

Finally, returning to his American audience at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pope Francis invoked the truth of the Declaration of Independence that “all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and that governments exist to protect and defend those rights.”

Yet rather than allow his hearers any sort of complacency about the rights to which liberalism is committed, the pope reminded Americans that “these or any truths must constantly be reaffirmed, re-appropriated and defended.” This led him to focus his speech on a right that has been much derided in recent years in this country, the right to religious freedom.

Religious freedom certainly means the right to worship God, individually and in community, as our consciences dictate. But religious liberty, by its nature, transcends places of worship and the private sphere of individuals and families. Religious freedom isn’t a subculture, it’s a part of every people and nation.

Our various religious traditions serve society primarily by the message they proclaim. They call individuals and communities to worship God, the source of all life, liberty and happiness. They remind us of the transcendent dimension of human existence and our irreducible freedom in the face of every claim to absolute power. We need but look at history, especially the history of the last century, to see the atrocities perpetrated by systems which claimed to build one or another ‘earthly paradise’ by dominating peoples, subjecting them to apparently indisputable principles and denying them any kind of rights… They call to conversion, reconciliation, concern for the future of society, self-sacrifice in the service of the common good, and compassion for those in need. At the heart of their spiritual mission is the proclamation of the truth and dignity of the human person and human rights.

To be sure, just as the state is responsible to protect the rights of religion, so believers are responsible to ensure that religion promotes the rights of others, “to make clear that it is possible to build a society where ‘a healthy pluralism which respects differences and values them as such’ is a ‘precious ally in the commitment to defending human dignity … and a path to peace in our troubled world.'”

These are salutary words indeed, much needed in the polarized world of contemporary American politics. Though I wish the pope had been more explicit about the way in which his convictions are rooted in the Gospel, his visit should remind all Americans, secular and religious alike, that, properly understood, Christianity and political liberalism are not enemies, but friends. In the world in which we live, they need one another to flourish.

I fear for future of American Christians if this country loses its liberal commitment to fundamental human rights, including the right of religious freedom, but I fear for the future of political liberalism even more. Pope Francis has reminded Christians that they ought to promote a Christian form of liberalism and he has reminded America and the world that political liberalism needs religion. I hope that Christians and liberals alike are paying attention.

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on September 30, 2015, in Abortion, American Founding, Barack Obama, democracy, Liberalism, Natural Law, Religious Liberty, Rights, Roman Catholic Church and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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