Religious liberty, properly defined, gives the people the standing to resist the government’s efforts to regulate or legislate in the domain of daily life where our conscience and our religious belief should hold sway, said the president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty
William P. Mumma, in delivering the 40th annual Thomas Merton Lecture in Manhattan, further explained that citizens often feel the cruel alternative of choosing between law and morality.
“And that’s why you see this strange timidity and fearfulness in the face of nearly daily attacks on religious faith,” he said. “People retreat from defending religion—whether it’s in their schools, or at work, in the public square—because they don’t trust the law to be with them.
“Winning victories in the religious liberty fight,” Mumma countered, “will restore people’s confidence if the law is aligned with morality, and it will give them the confidence to stand firm in public, aligning their speech and their actions with their religious and moral convictions.
“So, it’s a really optimistic dynamic,” he said. “Put the Constitution back in its place to protect religious liberty, let the people go and push the government out of those places where conscience and religious conviction should rule, and then see that restoration of law combined with morality, that gives people a confidence to be citizens.”
But all this is the work of man, he noted, adding that unless people make a radical commitment to Christ, religious freedom will do nothing to restore the world. “Ultimately, optimism comes from the work of men. It’s hope that comes from God.”
His address, “Religious Liberty & The Captive Mind: The Writings of Thomas Merton and Czeslaw Milosz,” was presented Dec. 11 at Corpus Christi Church in Manhattan.
Mumma is a 1983 alumnus of Columbia Business School. He previously was CEO of Mitsubishi UFJ Securities (USA).
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, headquartered in Washington, D.C., has been involved in several prominent legal cases concerning religious liberty, including cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Merton Lecture Series was created in 1978 to honor Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and bestselling author of works such as “The Seven Storey Mountain.” A 1938 alumnus of Columbia College, Merton graduated in 1939 from Columbia’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
Mumma said when he arrived at Columbia in 1981 his exposure to Christianity was minimal, having been raised in a household of no religious belief.
He said he felt a kinship with Merton after reading “The Seven Storey Mountain.”
“What resonated with me with Merton was the idea of the Church as a home for a lifetime journey to Christ.”
Mumma was baptized and confirmed at nearby Notre Dame Church while at Columbia.
The lecture was presented by Columbia Catholic Ministry and the Hugh J. and Catherine R. Kelly Endowment for the Thomas Merton Lecture at Columbia University.
Mass, in memory of the deceased members of the Kelly family, was celebrated before the early evening lecture by Father Daniel P. O’Reilly, pastor of Corpus Christi parish and director of Columbia Catholic Ministry.
“He (Thomas Merton) became a central figure in American Catholicism after he was baptized in this very church, in that very font, in 1938,” Father O’Reilly said.
Rachel Dziatko, 21, a senior chemistry major at Columbia who has served as co-president of Columbia Catholic Ministry, attended the lecture despite a busy academic workload. “As a community, one of the things that we really try to do is to engage the intellectual side of Catholicism,” she said. “There are a lot of people, especially students, who are maybe for the first time really embracing their faith or people who are thinking of converting. Especially with the environment here at Columbia, people are interested in really critically thinking about everything,” she added, “especially their faith.”