Instances of Discovery

Since August 2007 I have been a monthly columnist for the St. Cloud Times. My theme, taken from the mission statement of the Collegeville Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, is “the renewal of human community.” The columns are republished here with permission of the St. Cloud Times.

Column #056. First published in the St. Cloud Times Mar. 27, 2012

Age-old philosophical questions — about rights and responsibilities, individual desires and the common good, church and state, conscience and democracy — are the stuff of daily debate these days.

Terms often bandied about as though their meaning is self-evident are actually loaded with assumptions and should be challenged, particularly as they have been employed in arguments about the marriage amendment and insurance coverage for contraceptives. I want to examine “people of faith,” “Judeo-Christian ethics,” “religious freedom” and “secularism.”

'People of faith'

I am not aware that anyone has done what a March 11 Your Turn complains about: “questioned the right of people of faith to have a voice in matters of public interest.” But I do question the usefulness of “people of faith” when set against an implied “people of not-faith,” as though the “people of faith” are of one worthy mind and the “people of not-faith” are less serious or less admirable in motives.

On the marriage amendment and contraceptive insurance coverage, the official Catholic position is clear, though to say it is the view of “people of faith” begs the question about huge numbers of Catholics who don’t agree. But it is also true that other churches take the opposite stand; they would seem to count as people of faith, too. And what about Hindus who profess faithful opposition to the marriage amendment, as was stated in the Star Tribune by Anant Rambachan, professor of religion at St. Olaf College?

'Judeo-Christian ethics'

“Judeo-Christian ethics” is problematical on two levels. First, it reduces Judaism, a religious tradition as alive and as full of historically generated and sociologically conditioned variety as Christianity, to an adjectival appendage — a slight that many Jews I know properly resent. Second, the phrase implies that there is one ethical platform from which Jews and Christians pronounce on matters of public concern. There is no such single platform. Between Christians and between Jews there are, on the marriage amendment and contraception, theologically based but diametrically opposed convictions.

'Religious freedom'

The health insurance debate has been framed as one about “religious freedom.” In a letter earlier this month to his fellow American bishops, Archbishop of New York (and newly named Cardinal) Timothy Dolan uses the term, italicized, 20 times, and adds, “As we recall, a Baptist minister, Governor Mike Huckabee, observed, ‘In this matter, we’re all Catholics.’”

The archbishop’s letter expresses also the lengths to which the argument is being pressed. “And what,” he asks, “about forcing individual believers to pay for what violates their religious freedom and conscience? We can’t abandon the hard working person of faith who has a right to religious freedom.”

Catholic social teaching is a strong bulwark against individualism run rampant, but this “religious freedom” argument, as Dolan articulates it, leads to a conclusion in which there can be no agreed and enforced common purpose whatsoever, because everyone is their own law.

There are many religious people who are not included in the “all” to whom Huckabee refers. They understand that in a pluralist democracy there are often public policy circumstances where personal predilection, even religious belief, cannot function unconditionally when the common good is at stake. When women’s health and a church’s dogma (or an individual employer’s moral convictions) are in conflict in a pluralist democracy, opting for women’s health is not an attack on religious freedom.


The engine driving strident partisan use of terms such as “people of faith” and “Judeo-Christian ethics” and “religious freedom” is fear of what some say is an insidious virus called “secularism,” portrayed graphically by Rick Santorum as Satan’s assault on America.

There are people of faith who believe this, but there are other people of faith who do not believe the United States has been systematically drained of God.

In America, a pluralist democracy, it is not the job of any religious authorities to squeeze the state into their theology. Count me among those who, on religious grounds, prefer the secular to the theocratic.