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In this time of political and cultural polarization, the best way to stand up for religious freedom is to “restore faith in faith,” said G. Marcus Cole, dean of Notre Dame Law School.

“We must prove to the secular world that the world is a better place with freedom of religion and belief” – even for those who are not believers, he said.

Speaking Wednesday during the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit 2024 in South Bend, Indiana, Cole called religious freedom a fundamental human right that transcends ideological boundaries.

Nearly 200 leading scholars, officials and religious leaders from more than 10 countries met on the Notre Dame campus to discuss “depolarizing religious freedom.”

Welcoming guests to campus, Cole said the summit comes at an important time.

By 2024, more than half the world’s population will be busy electing new national governments, Cole said. In recent weeks, for example, France, Britain and India have just held elections, and later this year the United States will elect a president.

But the challenge for those who understand the importance of religious freedom is keeping religious freedom out of politics. “For religious freedom to thrive, it must be neither an issue of the right nor the left,” Cole said. “It must not be the property of conservatives or liberals. It must not be valued by some and derided by others.”

Religious freedom, he said, should be defended by all people of faith – and those of no faith too. “In many ways, it is people of no faith for whom religious freedom is most important and who are most threatened by its absence,” he said, noting that there are still 13 countries around the world where “atheism is a crime punishable by death” and dozens more where “blasphemy laws provide the same punishment.”

G. Macus Cole, dean of Notre Dame Law School, welcomes participants to the 2024 Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit in South Bend, Indiana, on Wednesday, July 10, 2024. | Peter Ringenberg

The flowering of religious faith

In his welcoming speech to the summit, Rev. Robert A. Dowd, president of the University of Notre Dame, noted that religious communities, at their best, unite people across differences and “call us to something higher, deeper, and truer than any ideology can grasp.”

They can also inspire people to make sacrifices for others outside their interest groups. “This is crucial to the functioning of any decent society, especially one that calls itself a democracy,” said Rev. Dowd.

“The freedom and flourishing of religious faith – the faith that feeds spiritual and often physical hunger, that builds community and bridges social divides – is the key to a just, peaceful and humane future.”

Stephanie Barclay, director of the Notre Dame Religious Liberty Initiative, also spoke about the importance of worship in a polarized society.

As more people do not attend church, “we are missing another opportunity to sit in a pew with someone they disagree with and who sees the world differently,” she said.

John Inazu of Washington University in St. Louis spoke about learning to disagree amid polarization. “Social change will not happen without individual change,” he said. It starts with listening, learning, forgiving and understanding.

In his speech at the evening gala, Cole said that religious people “talk past” the rest of society when they talk about religious freedom.

For some, talking about religious freedom can seem like a foreign language, he said. “It is a frightening language, a threatening language.”

In recent years, defenders of religious freedom have won tremendous, hard-fought victories in the courts. “But as I said last year, these legal victories are fleeting unless we also win in the court of public opinion,” Cole said. “We have won victories of the spirit. We must also win victories of the heart.”

Participants of the 2024 Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit tour the Basilica of the Sacred Heart in South Bend, Indiana on Tuesday, July 9, 2024. | Peter Ringenberg

Living convictions

Cole said that when he and his wife, Angie, were raising their sons, they prayed with the boys every day, asking God for miracles. “But most importantly, we wanted them to understand that sometimes God wants them to be the source of miracles for others.”

David Palmer, an Indianapolis businessman, is one such miracle, he said.

Over a decade ago, Palmer was living in Carmel, an affluent suburb of Indianapolis. When he learned that many of the city’s homeless needed jobs, he started a nonprofit furniture company called Purposeful Design.

The company sells furniture to large office complexes in Indiana – including Notre Dame. “But if you ask David Palmer what he does, he’ll tell you he doesn’t build furniture, he builds people.”

Since its inception, Purposeful Design has helped more than 300 men who were homeless or unable to find work due to addiction or criminal records to improve their lives.

Some of these individuals were able to use their earnings to buy their first home and settled in a crime-ridden neighborhood called the Swamp, near the Purposeful Design factory. They made changes to the area, built playgrounds and started neighborhood watch groups. The crime rate dropped.

Grocery stores and schools followed.

And Palmer did that too.

“David Palmer left his large, luxurious home in Carmel and moved with his family to a house in the swamp.”

Why? “He will tell you that he felt called by God to use his abilities to help those in need. David Palmer doesn’t just believe in God, he lives his faith,” Cole said.

G. Macus Cole, dean of Notre Dame Law School, welcomes participants to the 2024 Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit in South Bend, Indiana, on Wednesday, July 10, 2024. | Photo by Peter Ringenberg/University of Notre Dame

This work is an expression of faith

Cole said David Palmer is an example of what is missing from our narrative about religious freedom. “We need to emphasize the good that religion can bring,” he said.

The law and victories in the religious freedom court are important, he said. But religious freedom is a battle that must be won through legal battles and in a court of public opinion. “And that courtroom is in every heart. We cannot win hearts with reason. We must win hearts with love.”

In the United States, Cole said, religious freedom has “brought forth a lot of love.”

The largest provider of health care in this country is the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is also the largest provider of education in the United States, he said. “And those numbers are multiplying worldwide, especially in the poorest communities in the world.”

Each year, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints donates more than $1 billion in 190 countries around the world, and other faiths do the same, he said.

“These actions are neither required by law nor are they financed by taxes. This work is an expression of a faith that is rooted in love. Religion is good for the world. But it can only be good for the world if we are not only free to believe, but also to actually live our faith. Religious freedom gives us the freedom to show others that we love them. And we should do that.”

Legal victories in court were not enough, Cole said.

“In a politically polarized world, these legal victories will only last as long as people believe that religion is a good thing.”

G. Macus Cole, dean of Notre Dame Law School, and his wife, Angie, greet attendees at the 2024 Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit Awards Gala in South Bend, Indiana, on Wednesday, July 10, 2024. | Matt Cashore
Professor Stephanie Barclay will deliver the opening address at the 2024 Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit in South Bend, Indiana on Wednesday, July 10, 2024. | Matt Cashore
G. Macus Cole, dean of Notre Dame Law School, speaks during the 2024 Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit gala in South Bend, Indiana, Wednesday, July 10, 2024. | Matt Cashore