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Defending Religious Freedom at Home — and Abroad

Publication Date: 
November 22, 2011
National Catholic Register
Joan Frawley

Excerpts from a debate featuring Professor Michael McConnell are mentioned in this National Catholic Register article by Joan Frawley in which McConnell discusses why "Religious freedom is the ‘first freedom.'"

As the U.S. bishops press their case for broad religious exemptions in federal and state laws, they have also lobbied Washington to secure religious freedom abroad.

Amid rising political turmoil in the Middle East and South Asia, religious minorities have become targets of sectarian violence, and U.S. Church leaders want President Obama to embrace the issue as a foreign-policy priority. Yet, they also recognize that secular trends in the West have relegated this issue to the backburner, and U.S. policymakers must be prodded to engage and even penalize nations that persecute Christians.


During the symposium’s featured debate between two well-credentialed constitutional scholars, Michael McConnell of Stanford University and Noah Feldman of Harvard University, the Harvard scholar asserted that “the liberal state cannot embrace a theory of liberty that privileges religion over other comprehensive and world-making doctrines.”


But McConnell argued, “Religious freedom is the ‘first freedom’ not because of its location in the Bill of Rights … but because the separation of church and state was the genesis of liberalism. The struggle between spiritual and temporal authorities laid the groundwork for the … limited state.”

In prepared remarks, McConnell asserted that religion “plays an unrivaled role in human life. It is an institution, a worldview, a set of personal loyalties and a locus of community, an aspect of identity and a connection to the transcendent.”

“In any particular context, religion may appear analogous to some other aspect of human activity,” McConnell concluded, “but, in its totality, it stands alone.”