The Pope Throws Down for Religious Freedom

On Saturday, standing before Independence Hall, Francis sounded similar to the most passionate religious-liberty defenders on the American right.

Jim Bourg / Reuters

Add this to the list of greatest improvised metaphors of all time: On Saturday, the pope stood before Independence Hall in Philadelphia and defended the “polyhedron” of pluralism and global religious freedom.

“I like to use geometry here,” he said, looking up from his notes in a tell-tale sign that his speech was about to get real. “If globalization is a sphere where each point is equidistant from the center, then it isn’t good, because it annuls each of us. But if globalization joins us as a polyhedron, where all are together but each conserves his or her own identity, then it’s good and gives dignity to all men and grants them rights.”

Unfortunately, there were no graphical aids to help those in the audience who lost Francis at the geometry imagery, but his point, emphasized throughout the rest of the speech, was clear. America declared its independence from Britain in order to preserve the rights of its residents, including the right to religious freedom. But today, “in a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or try to reduce it to a subculture without a right to a voice in the public square … it is imperative that the followers of various religions join their voices in calling for peace, for tolerance, and for respect for the dignity and rights of others,” the pope said.

Going into this speech, which was expected ahead of time to be on the topic of religious freedom, pope watchers wisely warned that Francis’s brand of “religious freedom” is different than that which is tossed around on the American right. Francis has spoken passionately about the violent persecution of Christians in the Middle East, for example—the most substantive and literal lack of religious freedom possible. But in this speech, Francis echoed versions of the rhetoric heard after the U.S. Supreme Court’s gay-marriage decision and during the Kim Davis conflict over marriage licenses in Kentucky. Twice, at the beginning and end, he repeated a line about the founding values of the United States: that all people are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; and, as he emphasized at the end, that the government exists to protect and defend these rights. The clear implication is that the government has not been been living up to this obligation, religious individuals are not afforded the right to worship as they like, nor are all religious individuals given full participation in the public square.

It is difficult to know what specific issues were on the pope’s mind; he spoke, as he tends to do, in broad sweeps and themes. Immigration was definitely part of it; at the end of the speech, he gave a shout-out to the Hispanics and recent émigrés in the audience. Religious extremism also seemed to be a sub-text, once again; in particular, he mentioned war and hatred as reasons why religious freedom is particularly important.

But it’s hard not to conclude that the pope has been having conversations with more conservative U.S. bishops, like Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, who are particularly concerned about this issue—especially when it comes to topics like homosexuality, abortion, and contraception. By far, Francis was most passionate when he was talking about the polyhedron of pluralism, this smothering of religious difference in the public square. Before he came to America, Francis said he would have to “study” the concerns of the United States. It appears that he has done so, and has made a certain constituencies’ concerns his own.