Timothy Cardinal Dolan observed that America is in a “religion battle.” The Catholic leader is concerned that there is an “unwarranted, unprecedented, radical intrusion” by government into religion. His Eminence added that secular culture is the source of creating “new rights every day.” Instead of encouraging another “battle” to fuel the divisive culture wars, what’s needed is a respectful conversation with a national panel of several prominent religious leaders and thinkers.
A discussion moderated by Bill Moyers or Jon Meacham with panelists like Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, Vanderbilt professor Amy-Jill Levine, founding editor of the Religion Department of Publishers Weekly Phyllis Tickle, General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, Metropolitan Community Church pastor and theologian Patrick S. Cheng as well as Cardinal Dolan, would be very beneficial.
Not all persons of faith believe that new rights are being created or new rights threaten old ones. Government is not to blame for a perceived erosion of religious freedom. People who manage government and its bureaucracies are overwhelmingly persons of faith. Jewish and Christian leaders and those of other religions have spoken in favor of policies opposed by His Eminence. The role of government is to balance the rights of everyone in a pluralistic society.
Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness does not include asking government’s permission to be true to one’s Creation, especially when it has no direct impact on one’s neighbor. No religious leader in America today can speak with unquestioned authority for those who follow their conscience. In addition, individual Christians increasingly choose to be less dependent on hierarchy preferring to find God and explore faith on a more personal, independent basis. The primacy of the Christian Church’s leadership rests with Jesus not men.
Instead of more conflict over religion, tens of millions of faithful Americans with views different from His Eminence would more likely prefer respectful dialogue. Faith in a pluralistic society cannot function smoothly with a winner take all or it’s my way or the highway attitude. No one has a monopoly on God. Views of the Episcopal Church or the Metropolitan Community Church, for example, should be accorded equal respect to those of the Catholic Church as expressed by His Eminence.
Secularism and popular culture are not compromising society. They’re not the problem. God, the Creator of the universe, is bigger than these greatly exaggerated so-called threats. If secularism or relativism is to be brought into the discussion then organized religion must take responsibility for greatly contributing to both throughout history.
In addition, Holy Sophia the Holy Spirit shows us God’s revelations. In the past she guided religious authorities, primarily men, to stop using faith to support slavery and segregation, oppose a woman’s right to vote, or to criticize scientists who believed the earth revolved around the sun. God does not change. Human beings change.
Views that differ about religious liberty, freedom, and worship among people of faith is an opportunity for dialogue not battles. It shows the rich mysteries of God. If religious leaders and theologians are not willing to have an open, honest, civil discussion among one another and not simply blame government then this “battle” has nothing to do with God, but rather power and holding onto it. Historically, religious power and control has been one of the most abusive, destructive, and corrupting forces imposed on the human soul. It’s time for dialogue.
Paul is a New York lawyer and Bishop in the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church Kyiv Patriarchate. He serves as the Church’s U.S. spokesperson. He is also author of Crucifying Jesus and Secularizing America. Reach him at VladykaPaulPeter@aol.com.