In a recent trip abroad, Pope Francis shared a few words about the Catholic understanding of religious freedom. The Holy Father said that “[religious freedom] is not limited only to freedom of worship but sees in the other truly a brother or sister, a child of my own humanity whom God leaves free and whom, therefore, no human institution can coerce” (Pope Francis, UAE Speech on 2/4/19). Considering this understanding, the Church strongly believes in protecting religious freedom, not just for Catholics but also for those of other faiths — or no faith at all.

Protecting religious freedom for all people also requires standing against religious bigotry. The way individuals speak about one another matters. Words have the power to break down barriers and build up mutual respect. Unfortunately, too often words are used to mock or look down upon people of faith, including by individuals in positions of leadership.  

For example, on Feb. 21, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel provided an update on her office’s efforts regarding three investigations, including one regarding allegations of clergy abuse in the Catholic Church. At that event, she made inaccurate generalizations about the Catholic Church, including a joke about the rosary: “If an investigator comes to your door and asks to speak to you [about abuse], please ask to see their badge and not their rosary.” This comment was offensive not just to Catholics but to members of other religious affiliations as well, seeking to garner headlines rather than support the real needs of abuse victims and survivors. No religious article or devotion, from any faith, deserves to be spoken of in this way.

The U.S. Constitution says that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office” (Article VI). In practice, however, religion is and has been considered. Whether in the 1870s and 1880s with the anti-Catholic rhetoric of Maine Congressman James G. Blaine, or in anti-Catholic attitudes faced by presidential candidates Al Smith (1928) and John F. Kennedy (1960), anti-Catholicism has reared its ugly head. While campaigning, Kennedy pointed out “while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again, a Jew, or a Quaker or a Unitarian or a Baptist” (Speech on 9/12/1960). Religious believers should not be disqualified from public service, or any job or profession, due to their faith.

Bigotry has also produced hostility and violence against religious people. Violent attacks — such as those at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin (2012), the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (2015), the Tree of Life Synagogue (2018), and the Al Noor and Linwood Mosques (2019) — are intolerable acts against beloved brothers and sisters of faith. Their lives reveal beautiful friends, neighbors, and relatives, people who brought a love of God and neighbor to their communities. The fact, too, that these tragedies happened during worship, while believers were coming together to grow in relationship with the Lord, is deeply heartbreaking. Such violence is antithetical to the peaceful worship taking place.

Religious bigotry succeeds when it forces people of goodwill to retreat from one another, causing them to feel discouraged and doubtful of how much more they can take. However, the best way to respond is by never giving up. It is about treating one another with dignity and respect regardless of the differences that may exist or try to divide. And it is about “[seeing] in the other a brother or sister” whom God loves, regardless of whether he or she shares the same beliefs. 

The Michigan Catholic Conference recommits its efforts, as should all people of goodwill, to standing up against religious bigotry and speaking out against any comments that demean or devalue people of faith in this state.

Paul A. Long is president and CEO of the Michigan Catholic Conference, the official public policy voice of the Catholic Church in this state.