This past Sunday at mass, our priest told the story of a conversation he once had with a taxi driver. The man had noticed Father’s clothing and collar. “You’re a priest. I am a believer too.” Father expressed his approval and the man went on, “My faith is very dear to me, for it was handed down by blood.”
The man continued, “When my child tells me he doesn’t want to go to church, I tell him he will go, for his faith was won for him through the blood of his grandparents and great-grandparents. They paid with their lives, and here is my child in a place where he is free to worship. So he will go.”
Father went on to recount recent stories of Christians attacked, murdered – hacked to death, even – on account of their faith. Iraq, Pakistan, India, Nigeria – the examples go on and on. Yet, as Father noted, our eyes are dry. We look away. We do not mourn.
We should be feeling such atrocities acutely. Both for the sake of the people involved and because such crimes strike at the heart of what it means to be a free, thinking, feeling human. Our right to live in accord with our faith is as, if not more, fundamental to our freedom as our right to free speech. When I am able to speak freely, my mind is free. When I am able to worship freely, my heart and soul are free too.
When you look at the totality of the world’s population, true religious freedom is almost an anomaly. Billions of people live in countries where one is legally required to adhere to a certain faith, or permitted to belong only to select, approved sects, or, though legally free to worship as one chooses, restricted in practice by violence or intimidation.
Millions more live in Western societies that are increasingly, insidiously, hostile to religious practice. They look down on religious speech in public forums or prohibit religious garb in public spaces or compel religious people to act in conflict with their faith-informed ethical principles. They give notice that faith is only appropriate within the four walls of a church. And they maintain that a particular set of public values is somehow more valid and important than the individual’s right to determine his own way, in accord with his own mind, heart, and soul.
I’m no Chicken Little. I don’t think the United States is a modern-day Roman Empire teetering on the brink of collapse. I don’t think our government is two steps away from nailing “CONDEMNED” signs to all the church doors and requiring citizens to profess adherence to modern, secular liberalism.
But I do think we should be honest enough with ourselves to acknowledge that this thing can be messed up. This accident, this anomaly in human history – this brief period and narrow place in which we have been free to think and speak and pray and do as we like, without fear of legal or violent reprisal – this can, and probably will, pass away.
If our society can entertain the notion that climate change will eventually cause oceans to rise and landscapes to be altered, it should also consider the possibility that creeping infringements on our rights will eventually cause us to lose them altogether.
Because yes, that’s what we’re experiencing: creeping infringements on our rights. (Our real, most fundamental rights, that is – not our popularly-claimed, pseudo-rights to free contraception and abortion.) And yes, that’s what HHS did when it told Hobby Lobby’s owners that, despite their deeply-held and religiously-founded belief that human life is precious and worthy of protection, even from the moment of conception, they must pay for their employees to receive forms of “contraception” that can end real, precious, human lives – in the humble form of embryos – almost (not before) they have begun.
(Please note that Hobby Lobby already provides coverage for most types of contraceptives. Its owners have objected to four particular “contraceptive” methods because they can act not as true contraceptives – that is, by preventing conception – but rather as abortifacients, preventing an embryo from implanting in its mother’s uterus and thereby killing it.)
Many Americans seem to think that religious freedom is an issue for the history books. You’re given a blank stare if you express your concern for religious freedom abroad and you’re viewed as an alarmist or a zealot if you’re concerned that it’s under threat at home.
Nobody’s bombing churches here, right? The government doesn’t support a Church of America with our tax dollars and require all citizens to be its adherents, does it? So what is there to worry about?
I worry that we take too much for granted. That we vaguely recall a story about pilgrims… something, something… Church of England… something, something… and we think that concerns about religious freedom belong to another time.
I worry when so many of my friends and fellow Americans hear that the government aims to force people to do things that violate their deeply held religious beliefs and they… don’t care. Or worse, they fly to the defense of the government and demonize those targeted by it because the things that are to be done involve those most sacred of secular cows, contraception and abortion.
The fact is, there are slippery slopes all over the place. It’s quite fashionable to be concerned about government overreach insofar as it applies to email and phone records. But what about government overreach concerning what we believe and how our everyday lives reflect those beliefs?
I worry that we might not realize we’re on a slope until we’ve already slipped.
“Reason recognizes that religious freedom is a fundamental right of man, reflecting his highest dignity, that of seeking the truth and adhering to it, and recognizing it as an indispensable condition for realizing all his potential. Religious freedom is not simply freedom of thought or private worship. It is the freedom to live according to ethical principles, both privately and publicly, consequent to the truth one has found.” (Pope Francis, June 20, 2014)