An Archbishop's Wake-Up Call on Religious Freedom

Archbishop Chaput put it well when he wrote, "The day when Americans could take the Founders' understanding of religious freedom as a given is over."

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Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput is seen during a news conference Tuesday, July 19, 2011, in Philadelphia. The Vatican on Tuesday named Chaput as Archbishop Justin Rigali's successor as Archbishop of Philadelphia.

President Barack Obama's signature achievement, the passage of national health care legislation, remains unpopular with the American electorate. Indeed, the American people appear to like it less and less the more they learn about what it is going to do to their access to health care and to its affordability. That said, it is curious that the most recent polls show the voters still trust the Democrats more on the issue of health care than they do the Republicans.

The most likely reason for this is the way the issue has been framed. Consider it a lingering hangover from the 2012 presidential campaign,  which turned on the idea that one party "cared" more than the other. The Democrats still talk about things like insuring the uninsurable. The Republicans, meanwhile, have fallen back into their old habit of talking numbers and efficiencies and costs instead of the effect the new law is going to have on people.

It is important to remember that there is a lot more to Obamacare than the numbers. As Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput reminded parishioners in his May 24 column, the new law is a direct threat to the traditional interpretation of religious liberty on which this country is founded.

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The archbishop's column reads almost like a broadside of old, one that urges its readers to understand that whatever tangible material benefits the new law may appear to provide, it will inhibit our freedoms in ways that will not be easy to roll back once the new regulations and mandates take root.

Chaput is an unimpeachable, unassailable voice in the debate. As he points out, the Catholic bishops have long been advocates for improved health care for all Americans because, he wrote, "basic medical care is a matter of social justice and human dignity."

"Even now," he continued, "even with the financial and structural flaws that critics believe undermine the 2010 Affordable Care Act, the bishops continue to share the goal of real health-care reform and affordable medical care for all Americans." However, he went on to caution, "health care has now morphed into a religious liberty issue provoked entirely – and needlessly – by the current White House."

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Like many other American Catholics and, for that matter, people of other faiths and denominations, Chaput remains concerned that personal and corporate religious liberty is compromised by the contraceptive mandate included in Obamacare which "violates the moral and religious convictions of many individuals, private employers and religiously affiliated and inspired organizations."

This is no small issue. Forcing official Catholic institutions and businesses led by Catholics and others who have a commitment to the pro-life position to violate their deeply held beliefs amounts to government coercion on matters of religious faith, something the First  Amendment is supposed to protect against. To Chaput, however, that is only one strand in a longer thread that includes the White House's refusal to defend the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act in the federal courts and other cases involving the free exercise of one's religious faith.

What Chaput has done is to issue a call to action for people of faith to stand with him in defense of religious liberty. It's an important development coming from a key religious leader, one whose opinions cannot easily be ignored except by design.

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Scripture says that those who believe will suffer "for His name's sake." The way in which the Obama administration is trampling on general religious liberties in the name of economic and legal interpretations of equality and partisanship may be part of that. It certainly marks the emergence of a new era in the political life of the nation.

"None of this is finally surprising," Chaput wrote. "Christians concerned for the rights of unborn children, as well as for their mothers, have dealt with bias in the media and dishonesty from the nation's abortion syndicate for 40 years. But there's a special lesson in our current situation. Anyone who thinks that our country's neuralgic sexuality issues can somehow be worked out respectfully in the public square in the years ahead, without a parallel and vigorous defense of religious freedom, had better think again."

Archbishop Chaput put it well when he wrote, "The day when Americans could take the Founders' understanding of religious freedom as a given is over. We need to wake up." He's right. The only thing necessary for evil to triumph, as the great man once said, is for good people to do nothing. Chaput's call to action is one that should be heeded not just by Catholics but by anyone who believes that America's traditional way of interpreting the idea of religious liberty is in danger.

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