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Lecturer examines effects of politics on religion

By SARAH McCARTHY | Friday, September 20, 2013

William McGurn, a former speechwriter for President George W. Bush, addressed the intersection of religion and government in a lecture titled, “New Gods on the Public Square” in the McCartan Courtroom of the Notre Dame Law School on Tuesday. The lecture was part of the 2013 Notre Dame Symposium. 

McGurn discussed the effects of politics on religion, and he specifically addressed Notre Dame’s opposition to the HHS mandate issued by the Obama administration, which requires all health plans to provide free coverage for contraceptives. 

“The principal stand Notre Dame has taken on the contraceptive mandate is gutsy,” he said. “The Irish didn’t go down without a fight.”

McGurn said the contraceptive issue is indicative of a changing system of beliefs in the United States with regard to religion.

“The great challenge of the contraceptive mandate is not legal, political or constitutional,” he said. “The primary challenge is an orthodoxy that no longer assumes that religion in American public life is a good thing.”

This resistance toward religion in American society has negative effects that reach outside of the political sphere, McGurn said.

“Even with the constitution firmly on our side . . . religious liberty will become increasingly fragile because the understanding is no longer ascendant in the institutions that shape American public opinion,” he said.

McGurn cited the thought of Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman who studied American democracy in the nineteenthhCentury, to support his argument that religion plays a critical role in society.

“Tocqueville saw how the diffusion of civil society helped guarantee freedom for all by deluding the power of government,” he said. “The profusion of church . . . makes our communities better off in a way that would be almost impossible to replicate if it were to be shoved off the public square.”

McGurn also compared the relationship between religion and government in modern times to the same relationship in 1776

“The founders understood enlightenment ethics,” he said. “Yet . . . the choices they made show that they believed religion . . . was vital to the success of freedom.”

In response to those people who are non-religious or who might be in favor of governmental involvement in religious institutions, McGurn acknowledged the validity of their counter-argument. 

“For a person that . . . sees religion as . . . an enemy . . . it is truly logical to ask why it should merit special protections,” he said.

However, there are serious faults in current health care policies that threaten to impinge upon religious freedom, McGurn said.

“Even Americans who have strong moral objections to contraception . . . and abortion must not only tolerate these things but pay for them when their fellow citizens want them,” he said. “We who make the case for religious liberty . . . speak a language that has been abandoned by the rest of America.”

The solution, McGurn said, is to restore liberty and increase the understanding that allows faith and freedom to flourish in America. 

” ‘God, Country, Notre Dame.’ These words should be a sign of humility,” he said. “They are a reminder that country and Notre Dame mean nothing unless they are tethered to the God who means truth.” 

Contact Sarah McCarthy at [email protected]