Review Reviews: Veritas Forum

On Monday April 30th, the annual Veritas Forum took place in the Rockefeller Center here at the College. This year’s event, “The Price of Free Speech: A Conversation on Religious Liberty, Freedom, and Faith,” was sponsored by The Apologia, Dartmouth’s journal of Christian thought. The “forum” was really a conversation on the intersection of free speech and faith between Michael Wear, the former White House Faith Outreach Director under the Obama administration and Rabbi Moshe Gray the director of Dartmouth Chabad. The event was moderated by Levi Roseman ’21.

Rabbi Gray opened the discussion by asserting that, in his view, the issue of free speech is a dichotomy between rights and responsibilities. For example, nowhere in the constitution is the right to life guaranteed to citizens, but rather it is a responsibility of all citizens to not murder. Gray described the issue as a “battlefield of rights” in which one’s rights must be compromised in order to ensure another’s. Furthermore, he highlighted the difficulty that legislators face when attempting to draw definitive lines between protected and unprotected speech in this battlefield of rights.

MOSHE GRAY: the chosen lift for the chosen people

MOSHE GRAY: the chosen lift for the chosen people

When factoring faith into the discussion, both Mr. Wear and Rabbi Gray acknowledged that religious institutions have been a major force in the ever-changing political landscape of our country. They also recognized that as our society questions about the role of religion in policy, the religious’ freedom of speech is being threatened.

In recent decades, religion has positioned itself as a polarizing figure in politics, largely due its stances on hot button issues such as abortion. Rabbi Gray pointed out that the debate on abortion has shifted from debate about responsibilities to a debate about rights, thus further polarizing the issue. Gray also emphasized that while taking their stand on issues like abortion, it is important for religious organizations to showcase the positive aspects of their beliefs.

“I put the onus on the religious to show the non-religious other religions to better present the beauty of their religion” said Rabbi Gray.

Though it may be difficult to draw hard and fast lines between protected and unprotected speech, there was still much to take away from the forum in terms of addressing these deeply rooted issues. In many instances, the problem with legislating free speech and other issues effectively can be boiled down to one central idea: effective governance is only possible in the absence of government forcing ideals upon different groups.

“We need to be careful about seeking to advance an agenda on traditionalists, the religious, or other groups” said Wear.

One of the liveliest topics of conversation from the forum was the tax-exempt status that religious institutions receive from the government. Churches, temples, mosques and other religious organizations receive 501C3 tax exempt status as a safeguard for religious freedom. However, because of they are untaxed, religious organizations and leaders are not allowed to explicitly endorse candidates in elections.

“When [the Johnson Amendment] applies to churches I view it as the mirror side of the establishment clause in the separation of church and state” said Wear.

Under the Johnson Amendment, religious figures are unable to establish a consensus around a political candidate, just like politicians are not allowed to establish a consensus around a particular religion. Those who oppose the Johnson amendment would argue that it is an infringement upon free speech, arguing that it is no different than organizations like Citizens United using money as a form of free speech. However, the key difference in the case of religious organizations is the balance between the state and the faith.

“The moment that religious institutions are taxed, the incentives and disincentives are in imbalance” said Wear.

Religion and government have a storied history of naturally becoming intertwined.