Ethics & Public Policy Center

Truths and Consequences

Published in The Catholic Difference on February 6, 2002


George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies


Kevin Hasson of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty – a nonpartisan, public interest law firm that defends the free expression of all religious traditions – is one of the legal stars of Catholicism in the United States. For Hasson and his Becket Fund colleagues, religious freedom is fundamentally a matter of human dignity – a recognition of the fact that human beings have a built-in thirst for the truth. To drive the expression of religious truths out of public life is both undemocratic and inhumane.

This past Christmas season seemed to bring us more than the usual number of inane and clumsy governmental interventions aimed at enforcing secularism in the American public square. A Covington, Georgia school board dropped the word “Christmas” from the school calendar under threat of an ACLU lawsuit. St. Paul, Minnesota, decreed that white poinsettias might be displayed at City Hall, but not red poinsettias (the latter were somehow deemed religious and the former dogmatically neutral). The city of Pittsburgh concocted the euphemism “Sparkle Days” so that city employees could avoid the dread “C-word.” And so forth and so on, world seemingly without end.

As with many other aspects of American life after September 11, however, there was actually a serious argument raised about the relationship between religious conviction and public life during “the holidays.” Not surprisingly, it was raised by Kevin Hasson.

Writing in the Washington Post on December 27, Hasson took on three men who had been fretting about an imagined parallelism between Christians convinced of the truth of their faith and Afghanistan’s Taliban: former President Clinton, and columnists Andrew Sullivan and Thomas Friedman. Clinton had suggested at Georgetown University that the only secure foundation for democracy was a robust uncertainty about the truth of anything; Sullivan had written that “in a world of absolute truth….there is no room for dissent;” and Friedman, convinced that only relativistic religion is safe for the world, had decreed that Islam must recognize “that God speaks multiple languages and is not exhausted by just one faith.”

Hasson quickly pointed out that Clinton, Sullivan and Friedman actually agreed with the Taliban on the crucial point. Advocates of radical skepticism and the Taliban both “…assume that truth and freedom are irreconcilable opposites. The difference is that the Taliban happily sacrifices freedom for truth, while Clinton and the others obligingly sacrifice truth for freedom. Both agree, however, that you are either a truth-owning jihadi or a freedom-loving relativist. Choose your corner, and come out swinging.”

The way out of this seeming conundrum, Hasson proposes, was scouted by the Second Vatican Council’s “Declaration on Religious Freedom.” Vatican II, Hasson writes, “refused to divorce truth and freedom;” rather, the Council fathers took the argument deeper. Vatican II “grounded freedom in a great truth: that we humans come with a built-in thirst for transcendence, an innate desire to seek and embrace an ultimate truth that lies far beyond the horizon of ourselves.” We can know the truth, but we can only adhere to the truth authentically when we adhere to it freely: “The truth about man is that man is born to seek freely the truth about God.”

That’s the most compelling argument for freedom, and for the human dignity that’s the strongest moral warrant for freedom. Freedom isn’t secure when radical doubt about our capacity to know the truth of anything is made into the first principle of democracy. Freedom is secured by an unshakable commitment to the dignity of every human being’s quest for the truth. And freedom is ennobled by the conviction that the only truth we fully embrace is the truth we embrace freely. That’s why religious freedom is the first of human rights, as John Paul II has frequently insisted.

Catholicism finally got this right at Vatican II, with immense consequences for the freedom revolution in central and eastern Europe, Latin America, and East Asia. If Islam could get it right – if Islam could find ground in the Koran to affirm what Hasson calls the “absolute truth of human dignity” – then Islamic societies could evolve specifically Islamic arguments for religious tolerance, and ultimately for pluralism.

A lot of 21st century history depends on whether that happens, and when.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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