Religious Liberty Compromised

James Tonkowich | ReligionToday.com Columnist | Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Religious Liberty Compromised

“You know, the weird thing,” said my lunch companion, an evangelical leader, “is that we’re losing our religious liberty in this country and evangelicals don’t seem to care. The Catholics are engaged over the issue, but no one seems to be able to convince evangelicals to get moving.”

While I know of evangelicals who are doing all they can to stop the current erosion of religious liberty, my observation is that most pastors, people in the pews, and organizations my friend is right. Evangelicals who should be front and center on the battlefield are sitting on the sidelines.

Why the difference between evangelicals and Catholics? Perhaps it has to do with memory.

Many have commented on lack of interest in history among evangelicals. After all, if you were born in 1965, born again in 1989, and your church was founded in 1997, how much history is there? The Catholic Church, on the other hand, is deep into history. And Catholics remember what happened in the past when religious liberty was abridged. They keep the struggles and the memory of the martyrs alive.

For example, in France, clergy and laity both celebrated the storming of the Bastille in 1789. The Revolution looked like good news for religious liberty. Even the Declaration of the Rights of Man stated, “No one shall be disturbed for his opinions, even religious, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by law.” This sounded like religious liberty affirmed, but in truth, it placed the Church under the heel of the state. The state reserved the right to define what “disturb the public order established by law” meant and that was bad news for believers.

The French state soon reorganized the Church, asserting absolute control. Bishops and priests were chosen by popular election, not appointment by the pope. Clergy had to swear an oath pledging their first loyalty to the state. Those who refused the oath were hunted down, imprisoned, exiled or killed.

By 1793, “missionary representatives” of the regime were sent into the provinces to close churches, prevent ministers from ministering, and root out anyone practicing the Christian religion. The state seized Church properties to sell, desecrate or destroy. And beginning with 16 cloistered nuns guillotined in Paris on July 17, 1794, many of those declared enemies of the state due to their Christian faith suffered martyrdom.

“Liberty of worship,” a phrase the Obama administration has been substituting for “religious liberty,” was still the law in France, but it meant (and still means) private religious practice with absolutely no public expression of faith. Public life was entirely secular, washed clean of all religious influences with blood if need be.

And while Protestants benefitted from the new liberty of worship in what had been a Catholic country, that benefit was short-lived. The state’s goal was the eradication of all biblical religion and compromised religious liberty was the warning sign.

Then there’s Mexico. Many think of Mexico as a Catholic country, which is so wrong that it would be laughable if it weren’t for all the bloodshed. While the population was 90 percent Catholic, the constitution of 1917 stripped Mexicans of their religious liberty. The result? Oppression, violence and martyrs.

The constitution stipulated that all religious practices were subject to state regulation. And so the state could — and did — confiscated church property and close most of the churches. Religious charities were shut down even though this left the poor, the sick, and the suffering with no one to care for them. Clergy not approved by the state were harassed, sent into exile or killed.

The state also took control of public and private education mandating anti-religious secularism. Teachers took an oath affirming atheism, declaring enmity toward the Church and clergy, and promising “I will not permit any of my household to take part in any religious act whatsoever.”

Between 1926 and 1929, “The Years of the Martyrs,” thousands of men, women and children, priests, monks and nuns were killed for their faith by mobs, the army and firing squads.

Again, the assault on religious liberty had sounded the alarm.

I could go on about Eastern Europe under the Nazis and then the Communists, China, Cuba, Vietnam, Spain. Spain?

Most of us have forgotten about the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, assuming we ever knew the story to begin with. The anti-religious bloodshed was so bad that of the 266 20th-century martyrs beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1996, 218 were Spanish.

In every case, the warning sign was the weakening of religious liberty, always the first step a secular state takes in its desire to control the population by controlling the Church.

Two examples from today: 1)The HHS mandate demanding that religious organizations provide contraceptives, sterilization, and abortion drugs as part of employee health insurance regardless religious convictions is an assault on religious freedom; 2) Legal experts, whether they are for or against same-sex marriage all agree on this: if same-sex marriage becomes the law of the land, those who oppose it will find their religious liberty taken away.

Friends, it doesn’t look good.

Do I believe the United States is headed down a violent, anti-Christian path? Not necessarily, but I have no desire to find out for sure. After looking at history, we can’t risk the possible calamity the warning signs foreshadow. Evangelical, Catholic, Buddhist, Jew, Muslim, Mormon, … — it’s time for all Americans to work together to preserve our religious freedom and with it our entire way of life. After all, we’ve been warned.

Author’s note: This column was written on August 14, the feastday of St. Maximilian Kolbe, martyred in Auschwitz in 1941.