During this time of political and cultural polarization, the best way to make the case for religious liberty 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 religious freedom or belief” — even for those who do not believe, he said.

Speaking Wednesday during the 2024 Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit in South Bend, Indiana, Cole called religious liberty a fundamental human right that cuts across ideological divides.

Almost 200 leading scholars, advocates and faith leaders from more than 10 countries gathered on the Notre Dame campus to discuss “Depolarizing religious Liberty.”

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

In 2024 more than half of the world’s populations are engaged in electing new national governments, said Cole. In recent weeks, for example, France, the United Kingdom and India have all just held elections and, later this year, the United States will elect a president.

But the challenge for those who know the importance of religious freedom is to take religious liberty out of politics. “For religious liberty to flourish, it cannot be an issue of the right or the left,” said Cole. “It cannot be the property of conservatives or liberals. It cannot be valued by some and derided by others.”

Religious liberty, he said, should be championed by all people of faith — and by people of no faith. “In many ways, it is the people of no faith for whom religious liberty matters the most, and who are most threatened by its absence,” he said, noting there are still 13 countries around the world where “atheism is a crime punishable by death,” and dozens more where “blasphemy laws impose the same penalty.”

G. Marcus Cole, dean of the 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 flourishing of religious faith

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

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

“The freedom and flourishing of religious faith — the faith that feeds spiritual hunger, 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 the number of people who are not attending church increases, “we have another lost opportunity where people can sit on a pew with someone that they disagree with, who sees the world differently,” she said.

John Inazu of Washington University in St. Louis, addressed the topic learning to disagree amid the polarization. “Social change isn’t going to happen without individual change,” he said. It starts with listening, learning, forgiving and understanding.

Offering remarks at the evening gala, Cole said, that when talking about religious freedom, people of faith are “talking past” the rest of society.

Talk about religious freedom can feel like a foreign language to some, he said. “It’s a scary language, a threatening language.”

Over the past few years, defenders of religious freedom have won tremendous, hard-fought victories in a court of law. “But as I said, last year, these legal victories are fleeting, if we don’t also win in the court of public opinion,” Cole said. “We’ve won victories of the mind. We also need to 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 beliefs

Cole said as 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 wanted them to be the source of miracles for others.”

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

More than a decade ago, Palmer lived in Carmel, an affluent suburb of Indianapolis. Still, after learning that many in the city’s homeless population needed a job, he started a non-profit 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 is doing, he will tell you that he’s not building furniture, he’s building men.”

Since its inception, Purposeful Design has helped more than 300 men who were homeless, or who could not find work because of addictions or criminal records, find a better way of life.

Some of those individuals were able to use their earnings to buy their first home, settling in a crime-ridden area called “the Swamp,” which was located near the Purposeful Design factory. They made changes in the area, building playgrounds and organizing neighborhood watch groups. The crime rate dropped.

Grocery stories and schools followed.

And so did Palmer.

“David Palmer left his large, luxurious home in Carmel, and moved his family into a house in the Swamp.”

Why? “He will tell you he felt called of God to use his abilities to be of service to those in need. David Palmer doesn’t just believe in God, he lives his belief,” said Cole.

G. Marcus Cole, dean of the 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’s missing from our narrative about freedom of religion. “We need to emphasize the good that religion can bring,” he said.

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

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

The single 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 multiplied by orders of magnitude all around the world, especially in the poorest communities of 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 faith traditions do the same, he said.

“These actions are not compelled by law or paid for with taxes. This work is an expression of faith, rooted in love. Religion is good for the world. But it can only be good for the world if we are free, not only to believe, but to actually live our beliefs. Religious Freedom allows us the freedom to show others that we love them. And so we should.”

Legal victories in court are not enough, said Cole.

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

G. Marcus Cole, dean of the Notre Dame Law School, and his wife, Angie, welcome participants to the 2024 Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit awards gala in South Bend, Indiana, on Wednesday, July 10, 2024. | Matt Cashore
Stephanie Barclay gives opening remarks at the 2024 Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit in South Bend, Indiana, on Wednesday, July 10, 2024. | Matt Cashore
G. Marcus Cole, dean of the Notre Dame Law School, speaks during the 2024 Notre Dame Religious Liberty Summit gala in South Bend, Indiana, on Wednesday, July 10, 2024. | Matt Cashore
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