‘If we want to have our First Amendment rights tomorrow, we must defend them today, wherever they may be threatened.” Carl Anderson, the head of the Knights of Columbus, is the author of your pre-election weekend reading, the new e-book: Proclaim Liberty: Notes on the Next Great Awakening in America, which puts this moment for Catholics and freedom in America in perspective. He discusses the book with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: You write, “Whether we will continue to live in a country blessed with the freedom to practice our religion free of government interference, or whether constitutional liberties will be subordinated to the demands of the state, remains to be seen.” How much does this one election mean in determining the answer to this question?
CARL ANDERSON: I think that over the past year and a half, we have seen an increasing coalition of people of faith defending the First Amendment. We have a conflict in this country between a small, militant group of secularists, and the vast majority of Americans, who, our polling has shown, broadly support the First Amendment right to religious freedom. They also support exemptions based on conscience and religious belief from objectionable laws. Obviously the HHS mandate is a very high-profile battle in this larger context. Governor Romney has promised to repeal Obamacare — which includes the mandate. President Obama has promised to keep the mandate in place. The issue of the federal government pursuing an agenda at odds with the First Amendment could end with this election, but regardless of who wins the election, we aren’t likely see an end to secularist attacks on religious liberty — at the state and local level, in the courts, etc. If we want to have our First Amendment rights tomorrow, we must defend them today, wherever they may be threatened.
LOPEZ: You write about “the ways in which Catholics — and all people of faith — ought to approach politics in order to live out their faith in public as well as in private, and to transform the divisiveness and hostility in politics we see today into a society in which every person is respected and valued — a society that Pope John Paul II has called a “Civilization of Love.” Politics can build a civilization of love? Surely you jest?
ANDERSON: Actually, if Catholics and other Christians take the lead in bringing charity to politics, if we build a more civil discourse, that would be a first step. We can’t expect politics to help further a civilization of love unless we bring love and charity to our political discussions. A civilization of love must be created across the board. It can’t exclude politics, nor can it focus on politics alone. It must transform all of society. The commandment to love our neighbor doesn’t have an exemption clause for politics. It may sound idealistic, but realistically we can begin by insisting that candidates stop the obvious misstatements of facts and character assassination that have become the trademark of certain campaigns.
LOPEZ: How can we “sincerely work together on issues where we believe one side is right and one side is wrong,” especially since we believe the other side’s position is evil in some cases?
ANDERSON: We can disagree with people — even if we believe their policies to be evil — without demeaning the person. Let us take St. Thomas More, for example. Locked in the Tower of London, awaiting execution because he would not violate his faith, he wrote a prayer for his political opponents. Now most of us would say it was evil for Henry VIII to kill a man simply for refusing to sign a document that violated his faith. But More didn’t denounce the king. Instead he died “the king’s good servant, but God’s first.” There is a lesson there for all of us.
LOPEZ: “Catholic social teaching has become increasingly ‘Gospel-centered,’” you explain. Where did it come from before John Paul II and Benedict XVI?
ANDERSON: Catholic social teaching is something that has developed over many centuries, but really began to take its current shape beginning with the encyclical Rerum Novarum issued by Pope Leo XIII in the 1890s. Throughout the last century, that social teaching has been further developed and promoted — in the pontificates of Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI of course, and also in the work of the Second Vatican Council. Catholic social teaching touches on every major issue of our day, and its themes and wisdom have been collected in a Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Church; it is a good book for every Catholic to have as a reference.
LOPEZ: Why is this Catholic stuff not mere inside baseball, but important to America?
ANDERSON: Nearly one in four Americans are now Catholic, so for a quarter of us it’s not inside baseball, and — given our numbers — how we behave affects the rest of the country. Furthermore, immigration from Latin America means that our percentage of the population is likely to increase — not decrease — over time. Catholics have a rich tradition and are an increasingly important group of voters. Catholics are increasingly in key positions in business, government, education, etc., nationwide. We literally have the opportunity to shape our country for the better, if we simply put our beliefs into practice.
LOPEZ: Does this mean Catholics have a unique responsibility to be leaders in promoting charity in civil society and policy?
ANDERSON: Unquestionably. We need to begin with charity, and we need to take strong stands on key issues. No politician or political party can win without the “Catholic vote,” so we have not just an opportunity, but also a responsibility to bring our values to bear in the public square, in how we live our lives, in the example we set, and in the policies and individuals for whom we vote. Catholics should hold politicians in both parties accountable on policies that we understand to be intrinsically evil, then debate prudential issues.