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Religious Freedom and the Common Good: The Importance of Religious Actors and Ideas in Public Life

Author: Thomas Farr

February 23, 2017

In this report for Cardus Law, RFRP Director Thomas Farr traces the development of the idea of religious freedom in the American context from the founding days of the republic during the Enlightenment through to our times, contending that today the very acceptance of religious freedom as a core principle in our society is under threat.

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Farr argues that the United States' Founding Fathers created a system of religious freedom based on the free exercise principle that was genuinely new. This system recognized a public faith, one that reflected the interior faith lives of citizens in how they conducted themselves religiously in the public space. This was possible due to the conception held by the vast majority of Americans that they were a religious people, yet this historic understanding has shifted fundamentally. Farr buttresses this civic understanding of religious freedom with the Catholic understanding of religious freedom and its insistence on human dignity and conscience leading to an exploration of how religious freedom is exercised by faithful individuals and those same individuals existing as and operating within communities of faith.

Farr offers a clear warning around the growing intolerance for religious freedom in the United States in the face of non-discrimination laws and a rejection of religious freedom as being intrinsically bound up in the common good. This state of affairs has led to a collective forgetting of what religious freedom means. It is an amnesia that is hindering the United States' ability to engage religion when it confronts it in the world of international affairs.

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