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Freedom and Respect


Humanity’s most profound intellectual and spiritual characteristics are the yeast for some of contemporary civilization’s most intractable conflicts: the freedom to speak without fear; the freedom to believe and worship without governmental interference; the freedom to report what is newsworthy without officially-mandated restraint. The often-conflictful consequences of the exercise of these freedoms are evident all over the world: in the most notable current display of this clash, Muslims around the globe are protesting, sometimes violently, the decision of a Danish editor to publish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammed (depicting the Prophet Muhammed in any way is strictly forbidden in Islam, let alone portraying the kind of offensive cariacatures seen in the political cartoons).

Does freedom of the press mean that the press has the freedom to offend religious people? Does freedom of religion mean that expression of ideas contrary to religious beliefs must be restrained for the sake of maintaining peace and civic order?

Americans might, at first, find the answers to these questions easy: yes to the first, no to the second. Surely, we might say, the press is free to publish opinions, no matter how offensive to some people; the vigorous (but not violent) expression of disagreement with the offensive opinion is the appropriate way to respond. And, certainly, religious freedom does not mean that other freedoms must be curtailed for the sake of religion.

But today’s reality is far more complicated. Religion and democracy are among the most powerful forces shaping global societies, sometimes for the better, sometimes not. The United States itself was founded in the crucible of the human quest for freedom of expression including religious belief; the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is history’s strongest espresssion of the principles of freedom for speech, press and religion. Yet, our own history repeatedly demonstrates the deep conflict these freedoms pose to each other; the law libraries of American might be half empty but for the two centuries of cases resolving disputes over the free exercise of religion, speech and press. In one of the pithiest comments on the tension inherent in these freedoms, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. once wrote that freedom of speech does not protect “free thought for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought that we hate.” U.S. v. Schwimmer, 279 U.S. 644, 49 S.Ct. 448, 73 L.Ed. 889 (1929).

While not so dramatic as the Muslim cartoon issues, another contemporary struggle over the meaning of free expression and religious belief is playing out on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, where the new President Father John Jenkins has openly questioned whether certain activities are in keeping with the Catholic character of the university. Other Catholic universities have struggled with similar issues about whether to permit the staging of plays that offend Catholic teachings, or whether to permit certain speakers whose views are at odds with the Church. Catholic universities are not alone on this subject. Mercer University, Baylor University and others have had controversies with their respective Baptist conventions, and other religiously-affiliated colleges and universities have also struggled with the balance between the freedom of the university and the commitments inherent in the religious mission.

These are not small issues. Our freedom to express our religious beliefs is as vital as our freedom to express differences of opinion. For example, the very same First Amendment that protects the university’s right to be Catholic also protects the right of someone to speak or write in a way that is different from Catholic belief. How do we resolve the inevitable conflicts that arise when these precious freedoms all compete around the same topics?

Respect is an essential virtue in considering the necessary balance among the competing freedoms. Respect means that just because you have the freedom to say or publish a thought does not mean you should. Prudence is respect with a more conservative cloak. Respect also means that while you may believe deeply in the teachings of your faith, you respect the rights of others who might not share that faith. No progress on Ecumenical or Inter-Faith relationships is possible without the fundamental respect among all believers for each other’s traditions. Even non-believers deserve respect, and they, too, owe respect to believers.

Perhaps, most critically, respect takes into account that a win-at-all-costs attitude in the defense of one form of freedom will ultimately defeat the very idea of freedom. In order for freedom to flourish, we must accord respect to all. Our freedom to believe, to worship, to speak as we wish will be much safer if we do not try to preserve our freedom by preventing others from doing the same. A true sense of justice accords respect to others in the exercise of freedom as a means to ensure peace for all.

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: