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Defending the First Right and First Freedom: A Call for Collaboration

Deacon Keith Fournier
© Third Millennium, LLC


In1997 I left the American Center for Law and Justice and assumed the Presidency of a Catholic Citizens group with offices on Capitol Hill. I viewed this move as one more "assignment" in a missionary life. We often think of missionaries as going to other nations, and they do. However, the work within our own Nation also requires missionaries, men and women informed by their Christian faith who are committed to building a more just society. After all, the current "culture of death" will only be transformed when those who are Christians build a new culture of life to replace it.

During that time I also became a lobbyist for life, committed to bringing an end to the horror of legal abortion. It is always and everywhere wrong to take innocent human life. Children in the womb are particularly defenseless, having no voice but ours. For decades I have tried in my own little way to take the social teaching of the Catholic Church and offer it as a resource for building a culture of life, family, freedom and solidarity. This beautiful teaching is not just for Catholics, other Christians or even other people of faith but intended for all men and women.

At the time, I was naďve when it came to the workings of the political culture, particularly within what was called the "religious right" movement and the "activist" culture that had developed within the beltway of Washington D.C. I did not even identify with the term "religious right", though I would be labeled by some as a leader of that movement.

I was born and raised in Dorchester, Massachusetts in a Catholic, French, Irish, Democratic home. It was years later, after I took my public place alongside of millions of others who heard the cry of the ones whom Mother Teresa rightly called the "poorest of the poor", children in the womb, that I was first called a "conservative." It was by those who favored keeping abortion fully legal through all nine months of pregnancy for any reason. They did not like me then and they do not now. My goal on this matter is simple, the end of legal abortion and their conversion to the truth.

The "religious right" movement back then was mostly an evangelical Protestant phenomenon. Though it tried to include both Catholic and Orthodox Christians most never joined; and even those who worked with the movement on pro-life and pro-family issues, like me, did not fit in with the culture or some of the then emerging models or rhetoric of the movement.

I was an early pioneer in the efforts to bring Catholics and Evangelicals together. In 1990, I wrote my first book "Evangelical Catholics: A Call for Co-operation to Penetrate the Darkness with the Light of the Gospel". The call for Christians to work together for social and cultural change was a controversial notion back then. Chuck Colson, one of the great men of integrity in the evangelical Protestant community, wrote the forward to that book, at considerable risk to his standing in some Protestant circles. I will always be grateful to him for doing that. Although out of print for years, that book is still the subject of reflection and, depending upon ones' perspective, controversy or appreciation. However, the idea of forming such an alliance is not only acceptable now; it has become one of the most potent forces changing the culture.

One of the negative effects of that movement is the very term, "religious right". It is now routinely used to marginalize and denigrate well intended Christians who engage in any form of political activism that does not fit a socially "liberal" agenda. It has become a verbal weapon, wielded against faithful, orthodox Christians who, compelled by their faith and their sincere understanding of their baptismal obligations to be faithful citizens- seek to influence the social order.

Some of the leaders identified with the movement back then were first politically "conservative" and wrapped Christian language around their polemics and their politics. Unfortunately some also attempted to put biblical "proof texts" on their own pet political ideas. They failed to develop a hierarchy of values. Some of their followers did not know which political positions were actually "Christian" (a position compelled by the Christian faith -like the right to life) and which ones were discretionary or fell within the large area of political concerns that should be left to the exercise of prudential judgment.

Whether any of this was intentional, I cannot say. It may have been due to a lack of a cohesive social teaching in the particular Christian tradition or training of some of the individuals involved. However, the sad effect was that some of the rhetoric of the movement back then made it sound as though all conservative ideas were somehow "Christian". This left little room for the exercise of prudential judgment that lies at the heart of human freedom and the call to political participation by Christians. The failure to develop such a hierarchy of values and to respect freedom and prudential judgment was one of the root errors that weakened the religious rights' impact.

I remember the movement in its prime. I often found myself invited to speak at some of its events. I was always a Catholic in a predominantly evangelical protestant crowd. I had some favorite lines. "I'm just a guy from Dorchester, Massachusetts. Pro-life, Pro-family Irish, French Catholic from a blue collar, Democrat family", I said. "Seems I woke up one day being called a "conservative" because I believe in the right to life at every age and stage... well, I am neither liberal nor conservative... maybe I am a "conservital" , sounds more like a laxative...that is just what contemporary politics needs".

I had another one I would throw out, particularly in crowds that fancied themselves to be really "conservative". I would say "last thing I ever fancied myself, a former hippie who in the search for truth rediscovered my Catholic Christian faith, was a conservative. Even more odd to me... I am being called "religious right". Well, I am religious and on the issue of the dignity of every human life from conception to natural death, I know I am right!"

I would also, as a former Democrat (and now a "reluctant" Republican, deeply worried about the coming struggle between the "libertarian" and "socially conservative" wings of that party), make a point of saying that I did not leave the Democratic party, it left me and millions like me when it failed to hear the cry of the poorest of the poor, our neighbors in the first home of their mothers womb.

These kinds of comments were crowd pleasers, but they were more. They helped me to speak in these settings because I was uncomfortable. I, and many Catholics like me, never felt at home in that movement. As a Catholic Christian I know that you simply cannot "fit" faithful Catholics (and I would argue this should be true of faithful Christians of any confession or communion) in the contemporary political categories of "left" or "right", "liberal" or "conservative." Nor should either major party ever have a "lock" on our support.

However, in retrospect, I am glad that I participated in many of those efforts. They bore some good fruit. They also laid the groundwork for a growing collaboration among Christians of every community, other people of faith and people of good will. It is time to learn from the past and collaborate for the future by defending the first right and the first freedom.


I am still "charged" by those who seek to protect the so called "right" to kill children in the womb with being a member of the "religious right." However, I long ago stopped caring. After all, the old children's jingo "sticks and stones..." does have some merit. Names don't hurt me. I really do not care what my "opponents" call me. I am just trying to be a faithful Catholic Christian. The momentum is shifting against these folks. The tide is turning on the first right, the right to life. Our goal, the restoration of protection of the right to life and the freedom to be born, is now within sight. The pro-life position is not "conservative" or "liberal", or even, in the first instance "religious", it is human. Without the right to life and the freedom to be born there are no other rights. In fact, the very foundation of all rights is placed at risk.

I know that some of my friends even disagree with me and think that I am overly "optimistic" in my assessment. Time will tell. Truth has an amazing power within it to bring about personal and social change. It is doing that on the right to life. The truth concerning the humanity of the child in the womb is winning the hearts and minds of more and more Americans. We all know the truth concerning humanity of children in the womb. It is written on every heart, rooted in the natural law that binds us all together. It is also confirmed by revelation.

Sonograms and medical advances are showing us a film of the beauty of the life of our first neighbors in their first home as we watch them smile, play, feel pain and grow. Increasingly, medical science is providing wonderful ways of operating "in utero" and psychologists are speaking of communication between parents and their child in the womb. These medical and scientific lenses into the womb simply confirm what our conscience told us all along, the child in the first home of the whole human race is our neighbor.

Recent headlines confirm the turning of the tide of public opinion. We were all deeply relieved when the child, brutally removed from the womb of Bobby Jo Stinnet of Missouri by her murderer, was found in good health. It was as though that baby was our own child- because it was. In a news account this morning, the former owner of a grocery store in Skidmore, Missouri, the slain mothers' home, expressed all of our sentiments when she affirmed: "The community will help raise this baby." As a Nation we witnessed the horror of the killing of Laci and Connor Peterson and called it what it was, a double homicide. The glaring inconsistency between this truth and the current practice of legal abortion on demand are obvious to almost everyone. Even the proponents of the "death on demand" approach to abortion are beginning to speak of rethinking their "strategy" and calling for a new language and new concern for the "fetus".

Whether a child is "wanted" cannot be the criteria for whether he or she has a right to life. Such a notion is heinous. The growing majority of Americans is coming to understand this. I believe that we will see the end of legal abortion in my lifetime. I also believe that we must now come together to build the kind of "life friendly" and "family friendly" environment that speaks the words of that former grocery store neighbor into good public policy. We need to say together "The community will help raise this baby." Such down home wisdom reveals the best of America and proves the truth behind the old adage "I'm from Missouri".


We must also come together to defend the first freedom, religious freedom, against an increasingly intolerant secularism.

In 1998 I took public exception to a conservative icons' claim that the Second Amendment (protecting the right to bear arms) secured what he called the "first freedom". I insisted that the first freedom was not the right to own a gun but rather religious freedom and that the first right was the right to life. Based upon the reaction of one of the leaders of the religious right back then, you would have thought I had blasphemed. He apparently felt that the right to own a gun was on the same level as the right to life. I upset him further when I said that good Christians could come down on either side of the gun issue, but never on the dignity of every human life from conception to natural death.

I found it very troubling back then that materials from some groups lumped "pro-life" and "pro-gun" together in their evaluation of political candidates. That still happens today. No matter how one feels about owning guns, I cannot find any basis in the Christian tradition for holding that faithful Christians must take a certain position one way or another on that issue. There were numerous other examples of the failure to operate from a proper hierarchy of values. For example, in some of those groups, positions opposing "campaign finance reform" or opposing "more taxes" were being presented as "Christian" issues. They are not. In fact, good Christians can be on either side of them as well.

However, religious freedom is NOT such a prudential judgment issue; it is a fundamental and universal human right.

We now stand in a very different climate than we did back then. The American public is besieged on an almost daily basis with evidence of a growing hostility toward religious faith, religious people, religious traditions and religious institutions. Just as the notion of evangelicals and Catholics collaborating is no longer controversial, the opportunities for collaboration on this front have never been more plentiful.

My good friend, the Chairman of the Board of Common Good, Archbishop Randolph Sly of the Charismatic Episcopal Church, just sent me an E-Mail containing the following partial list of some of the threats to the first freedom that have recently filled our news. It was compiled by the American Conservative Union:

"-- In Maplewood New Jersey, the Columbus High School brass ensemble was ordered not to play a single Christmas carol at their holiday concert.
-- In Denver, officials of the annual Parade of Lights refused to allow a float bearing the banner "Merry Christmas", but allowed a float honoring homosexual American Indians.
-- Macy's has banned the phrase "Merry Christmas" in all stores nationwide.
-- Target stores have declared the Salvation Army "persona non grata." The new policy will cost the Salvation $9 million this year.
-- School children in Lake County, Illinois were barred from singing Christmas carols on the bus.
-- In Kirkland, Washington a production of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol was halted.
-- According to The American Center for Law and Justice, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued a directive forbidding the erection of nativity scenes in senior homes.
-- In Mustang, Oklahoma, school officials banned the singing of Silent Night.
-- In King County, Washington, public library administrators banned Christmas trees in library branches. Fortunately, the library board struck down the policy.
-- The American Civil Liberties Union took the city of Cranston, Rhode Island, to court for daring to erect religious and secular Christmas displays on the front lawn of City Hall.
-- Officials in Georgia ordered a privately owned amusement park to nix any holiday entertainment shows that mentioned the religious meaning of Christmas.
-- A local school in Pennsylvania set up a holiday display that included a crčche, a menorah, and a Kwanzaa scene, but the principal demanded that -- you guessed it -- only the crčche be removed."

From 1991 through 1997, I served as the Executive Director of the American Center for Law and Justice, a public interest law firm engaged in religious freedom and pro-life work. During that time I wrote a small booklet entitled "Religious Cleansing in the American Republic". The booklet was distributed to half a million people. But it was not without its critics as well. I was accused by some back then of overstating the problem. I did not. The recent emergence of this kind of hostility toward the symbols of our religious heritage, the mocking of the values informed by religious faith and this overt and open hostility toward people of faith and religious institutions is proof.

It is also signals a clear and present danger.

Religious freedom is the first freedom. It is also a fundamental human right for all persons. The western tradition is founded upon a vision of human freedom that is informed by the insights derived from classical Christian and Jewish thought. Freedom has two sides to its reach; both a freedom "from" and a freedom "for." Though we may be free to choose, we are never free to determine what is good or evil; right, or wrong. Freedom must be bounded by truth and exercised within a moral constitution.

The Western tradition is rooted and grounded in the great insights derived from Christianity and Judaism. There are legitimate differences of opinion as to which of the American founders was a Christian or a Jew. Some were deists and some were atheists. However, there is little disagreement that this Nation has its roots in - and was deeply influenced by - Christian and Jewish thought. Efforts to say otherwise are not only revisionist history, they are dangerous. They promote a growing secularist intolerance of religion which threatens authentic freedom and does not serve the common good.

The American idea of protecting religious freedom as the "first freedom" is set forth with simplicity and lucidity in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. That amendment affirms that in America there should be no "establishment of religion" in the sense of a nationally sponsored Church with a mandated adherence. Such a National Church was rejected by many of the American founders, even though some of the original colonies actually had State Churches. However, religious faith and the proper role of the values informed by faith as applied to our life together have provided a foundation for freedom for all men and women of every faith or no faith.

The prohibition against the "establishment" of a National Religion must not become an impenetrable barrier or be used to justify governmental hostility toward religious faith, religious persons or religious institutions. The so called "establishment clause" of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is really an "anti-establishment" clause. It must be interpreted in light of the Free Exercise and free Speech clauses of that same First Amendment. Religious faith, religious persons and religious institutions should be encouraged and accommodated by the government, not treated with hostility. Religious faith and the values informed by faith serve and promote the common good.

Religious freedom is a fundamental human right which must be secured and protected by law. Rightly understood and applied, religious freedom means a freedom for religious expression; not a removal of such expression. It entails a freedom for people of all faiths to participate in the public square and to be a part of the daily social interactions that constitute the very tapestry of our social life. Religious faith is a human and social "good" and the values informed by faith as applied to our life together, have provided a firm foundation for our understanding of freedom and belief in unalienable rights, endowed by a Creator not conferred by any government.

At the beginning of the Third Christian Millennium we must collaborate to defend the first freedom. As a Nation, we must reaffirm our support for religious freedom; rightly understood and applied, as a freedom for religious expression not a freedom from such expression. Hostility toward the role of faith in our life together as a free people and efforts to censor the vital role it has played in our history and founding, is corrosive to freedom and does not serve the common good.


The climate in our Nation has significantly changed since the peak of the religious "conservative" movement. The social issues that propelled so many Christians (Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox and Evangelical) into the policy arena still have the potential to motivate and mobilize, such as the first right, the right to life and the first freedom, religious freedom. It is time for a new collaboration around these issues. As we prepare to celebrate the great gift of the Birth of Jesus Christ, the threats to our first freedom loom large.

This is a significant moment for effecting lasting change in our culture. This is a time to build a culture of life, family, freedom and solidarity. Though I am older and my hair has turned beyond gray to white, I am buoyed with hope and compelled even more passionately into the work of effecting lasting social, political and cultural change. In collaborating to defend our first right and our first freedom, we will find a path to our future and serve the common good.

Let us begin the work together.


Deacon Keith A Fournier is a Roman Catholic Deacon of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia. He is a constitutional and human rights lawyer. A graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, the John Paul II Institute of the Lateran University and the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, Fournier has stood at the intersection of faith and culture for thirty years. He is the author of seven books on life, faith, family and freedom including "A House United: Evangelicals and Catholics Together". His eighth book "The Prayer of Mary: Living a Surrendered Life" will be released by Thomas Nelson in the spring. Deacon Fournier is the Founder and President of Common Good.


Third Millennium, LLC VA, US
Deacon Keith Fournier - Deacon, 757 546-9580



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