Several years ago I visited a synagogue in Istanbul, one of the few remaining in all of Turkey. It had been firebombed a few weeks earlier – in response to some recent incident between Israelis and Palestinians. But because of security and a thick outer wall, it was relatively unharmed. Inside, ten elderly, eccentric Jewish Turks were gathered, the bare number needed for a minyan. We spoke for a short while about what it was to live as a religious minority in a big Muslim country. But I will never forget the atmosphere in that tiny congregation – wary, but devout – a faith that, despite challenges nearly unimaginable, had endured for centuries.
A few days later I visited a pre-school run by Italian Franciscans in St. Paul’s Tarsus, also in today’s Turkey. They were, if anything, even more wary about outsiders, probably because they were much less equipped to repel threats – unless you believe a wooden door could foil a would-be terrorist. After we talked a while, they relaxed and accepted me as, in fact, a real Christian from the West. For them, too, survival comes at a high price: constant worry over who’s around, what you say, how others regard what you do. Yet as the sons of Francis of Assisi are wont to be, they were at ease and cheerful, once inside their own space, as they went about their work with young children.
Which, of course, brings us, through the strictest logic and iron necessity, to the matter of Hillary Rodham Clinton and the growing pressure on American churches. It’s a simple fact that most religious persecution, media impressions notwithstanding, is not spectacular. When a few dozen Copts or Ethiopians are beheaded because they are Christians, or Muslim refugees on boats in the middle of the Mediterranean throw the Christians overboard, the media pay attention, limited and brief attention, to be sure. But such overt acts of murder don’t happen on a large scale every day, even in the age of Islamic jihad. By far the greater and more effective pressure on believers is the steady, slow, grinding exclusion and prejudice of their everyday lives.
So when Mrs. Clinton spoke the other day at the “2015 Women in the World Summit” about how “deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs, and structural biases have to be changed” in order to secure abortion, contraception, and women’s empowerment, it caught my attention. And it should catch yours at well. Because if you take seriously what you see in that performance – and the Clinton team’s MO is to focus-group and poll and triangulate positions in all sorts of ways to see how they’ll play – it poses a very dangerous threat to the daily life of Christians in America.
A lot of people in the media laugh off such statements because, they claim, no one’s talking about killing or imprisoning traditional Christians in America. It’s simply loony to think that could ever happen here. But my Istanbul Jews and Tarsus Franciscans could explain some home truths about how the dominant cultural class can, well, dominate those with whom it not only disagrees, but considers beneath rational engagement. In the Muslim world, this meant Jews and Christians often survived as dhimmis, infidels, who paid a special tax for the pleasure of being second-class subjects.
The tax was relatively mild – in poor nations, you cannot ask a Christian baker to pay a $150,000 fine for not baking a wedding cake with two men on top, and you would only be impoverishing your own culinary environment if you shut down pizzas parlor for a similar stance. But the threats are there all the same and over time produce the desired effect. The Middle East and North Africa took a long while to become predominantly Muslim, even after the military conquest. Our transition to the new regime, I predict, will come much quicker, if it isn’t stopped.
Make no mistake. What Mrs. Clinton put forward the other day, though not necessarily a majority view, is quite able to function as one all the same because some quite powerful elites want it to be so.
As the current presidential campaigns are starting out, abortion already seems to be playing an unexpected role. There’s no denying the recent numbers: a slight majority of pro-lifers; two-thirds of the people believe abortion should not be permitted after the first trimester; and 80 percent oppose abortion in the final three months. We’ll see if Mrs. Clinton, who a proven track record of political missteps, is able to handle this hot potato. And whether pro-life opinion translates to pro-life voting.
But I’m shocked that no one seems very shocked by Mrs. Clinton’s bald assertion about changing religious belief. “Deep-seated cultural codes” you can let pass, because it’s the kind of thing people say on college campuses and in elite venues. It doesn’t mean much more than we have to change attitudes that the speaker happens not to like. Ditto with “structural biases.” Sounds very serious and intellectual and all that. But who’s in favor of structural biases? A show of hands, please.
No, sandwiched between those two weaselly formulas is something with real existence: religious beliefs. My shock is that a likely candidate for president of the United States has no hesitation in calling publicly for changing other peoples’ religious beliefs. That would once have been thought un-American, an affront to our proud religious pluralism. But we’re too sophisticated for such simple terms now.
I hope someone on the other team is listening. And that some day, in a presidential debate, we’ll hear this question: “Mrs. Clinton, you’ve said that we need to change people’s religious beliefs in this country. Did you mean to say that, as president, you would attempt to do so or would have the legal right to use the powers of the U.S. government to that end?”