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How liberal ideology undermines religious freedom

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jan 16, 2013

For the 2nd day in a row (refresh your memory here) Catholic World Report carries an interesting commentary on religious freedom.

Benjamin Wiker identifies Benedict Spinoza as “the father of modern political liberalism.” While Spinoza claimed to advance the cause of religious freedom, Wiker argues that the unconventional 17th-century Jewish thinker actually undermined true liberty, by suggesting that people may believe whatever they want in private, but should be restricted in what they do in public. If religion is purely a private affair, Wiker reasons, “Spinoza’s atheism becomes the default ‘belief’ of the liberal state.”

Actually, Wiker writes, Spinoza arrived late for the discussion of religious freedom. The most important advances had already been made. It was the Catholic Church, Wiker notes, that first recognized the need to separate secular from religious authority. “The principled distinction between the church and political power was something hammered out by the church between the 5th and 12th centuries.”

Wiker concludes his provocative essay:

Or, more deeply, there is all the difference, between defining religious liberty as the right of the unified church to be free from manipulations by the state, and defining religious liberty as the right of every individual to believe whatever he wants, which destroys the unity of the church and leaves the individual powerless before the manipulations of the state.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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