In Archbishop Charles Chaput’s keynote address at the Napa Institute he answered a question from a friend of his who wondered if the religious freedom debate had “crossed a Rubicon” in our country’s political life.
From Archbishop Chaput:
The Rubicon is a river in northern Italy. It’s small and forgettable, except for one thing. During the Roman Republic, it marked a border. To the south lay Italy, ruled directly by the Roman Senate. To the north lay Gaul, ruled by a governor. Under Roman law, no general could enter Italy with an army. Doing so carried the death penalty. In 49 B.C., when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his 13th Legion and marched on Rome, he triggered a civil war and changed the course of history. Ever since then, “crossing the Rubicon” has meant passing a point of no return.
Caesar’s march on Rome is a very long way from our nation’s current disputes over religious liberty. But “crossing the Rubicon” is still a useful image. My friend’s point is this: Have we, in fact, crossed a border in our country’s history — the line between a religion-friendly past and an emerging America much less welcoming to Christian faith and witness?
Let me describe the nation we were and the nation we’re becoming. Then you can judge for yourselves.
People often argue about whether America’s Founders were mainly Christian, mainly Deist or both of the above. It’s a reasonable debate. It won’t end anytime soon. But no one can reasonably dispute that the Founders’ moral framework was overwhelmingly shaped by Christian faith. And that makes sense because America was largely built by Christians. The world of the American Founders was heavily Christian, and they saw the value of publicly engaged religious faith because they experienced its influence themselves. They created a nation designed in advance to depend on the moral convictions of religious believers and to welcome their active role in public life.
The Founders also knew that religion is not just a matter of private conviction. It can’t be reduced to personal prayer or Sunday worship. It has social implications. The Founders welcomed those implications. Christian faith demands preaching, teaching, public witness and service to others — by each of us alone and by acting in cooperation with fellow believers. As a result, religious freedom is never just freedom from repression, but also — and more importantly — freedom for active discipleship. It includes the right of religious believers, leaders and communities to engage society and to work actively in the public square. For the first 160 years of the republic, cooperation between government and religious entities was the norm in addressing America’s social problems. And that brings us to our country’s current situation.