Action Alert!

Mary Ann Glendon on religious freedom

By Thomas V. Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 16, 2015

Tonight I attended the 2015 Edward Cardinal Egan Lecture, presented by the Magnificat Foundation at NYU’s Catholic Center. Mary Ann Glendon, Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and former US Ambassador to the Holy See, spoke on “Religious Freedom: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.”

Glendon focused on religious freedom as a uniquely American value, its current decline and the central problems faced by religious liberty advocates.

The greatest of these problems, she said, is convincing people who have never themselves been threatened with loss of religious freedom that religious freedom is a principle worth defending. Making people aware that two-thirds of the world's population live in areas with significant restrictions on religious freedom, and of the great sacrifices made by Christians in many countries to practice their faith, is one way to accomplish this.

She brought up the importance of pluralism for religious and non-religious people alike, the value of religion for a pluralistic society and the value of pluralism even for religion itself. However, she emphasized, pluralism ought to have some real content to it rather than being mere lip service. It takes great wisdom and respect to be able to balance various human rights, which inevitably bump into each other. Even if religious minorities do not get their way in every debate, as is bound to happen, it is important that they not be made to feel like “losers and bigots.”

Glendon also brought up the distinction between a true, robust religious freedom and establishment-favored terms such as “freedom to worship” and “freedom of belief.” She recalled that on a trip to Pakistan, she was assured by Pakistani government officials that there is complete freedom of religion there—“People can believe whatever they want!” This “thin” view of religious freedom, of course, leaves a great deal of room for encroachment.

Thomas V. Mirus is Director of Podcasts for, hosts The Catholic Culture Podcast, and co-hosts Criteria: The Catholic Film Podcast. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - May. 18, 2015 7:15 PM ET USA

    Note that "freedom of worship" and "freedom of belief" are a far cry from: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The founders had in mind a free exercise of religion that took place 24x7, not merely for an hour on Saturday or Sunday morning. The word games in the current milieu are actually a form of warfare against true religion. Our state legislature continues to stand firm against adding the "nondiscrimination clause."