Religious Liberty Now

“I humbly request that you lose the victim mentality,” a critic wrote to me recently, arguing that ours is a secular country. “Christianity is not being attacked, but rather put in its place as one religion among many in a pluralistic, multi-racial, democratic republic.”

For Christians who have been taken to court, fined, or lost jobs for adhering to Biblical morality – Jack Phillips, Kim Davis, and the Little Sisters of the Poor are prominent examples – a feeling of being attacked is likely not overstating the case. Biblical morality, which until recent years was shared by most Americans, has suddenly been deemed a threat to the well-being of others. Across the Atlantic in Finland, a member of parliament is currently on trial for hate speech because she supports Biblical morality. So, something more must be at work than Christians merely being asked, in the name of pluralism, to stand back as one group among many.

Whether Christians are America’s latest victims connects with a deeper paradox: Jesus Christ was a cultural and political victim – Caiaphas and Pilate make this abundantly clear. But Rome’s confused culture and broken politics unwittingly served a divine purpose: they made Christ the sacrificial victim offered to God for the forgiveness of sins. When we kneel before Christ in adoration, we appropriately pray, “O Saving Victim, open wide the gates of Heav’n to us below.”

That Christians should also be such victims seems to follow: “If they persecuted me, they will persecute you.” (John 15:20) For millennia, hostile cultural and political forces have taken the lives of heroic Christian martyrs whose deaths witness to Christ’s triumph over the world. Which is why the prayer to the Saving Victim continues, “Our foes press on from ev’ry side; Your aid supply, Your strength bestow.”

The Victim who proved to be the Victor ordered His followers to keep His commandments and to make disciples of all nations. This is the Christian mission, which has been carried out in all types of cultures and political situations – sometimes as victims, sometimes as victors.

Though Christ predicted persecution, Christians would, of course, prefer to live and evangelize as victors. A cultural and political framework conducive to the Christian message serves as fertile soil for divine grace, and the Christian moral code certainly provides a solid foundation upon which a polity can frame its laws. This was the situation for the bulk of American history.

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The rise of secularism coupled with massive religious disaffiliation has altered the situation for Christians laboring to fulfill the divine mandate. Peer pressure and societal expectations impact a person’s faith. When these influences are indifferent or even hostile to religion, the effects on a person’s faith can be deadly. Consider the number of Christians who, after having spent four years away from home at college, no longer go to church after graduation.

Surely much blame for the de-Christianization of America falls on institutional Christianity, with the Catholic Church at the front of the line, for its failure to catechize and to live up to its own moral teachings. Internal rot, however, does not prompt lawsuits and the cancellation of Christianity’s remaining members. Undoubtedly, hostile forces outside the Church have taken aim at Christianity for refusing to bow to the demands of the Sexual Revolution, which has now reached its Reign of Terror stage.

The religious liberty movement is a defensive reaction that seeks legal protection for Christian individuals and institutions that refuse to conform to the progressive zeitgeist. It is not a con job intended to enable a theocracy. Objections to religious freedom for Christians often can be reduced to a single principle: that the religious person or religious institution in question – sole proprietors, adoption agencies, hospitals, schools, employers – could receive a sweeping right to discriminate against LGBTQ people.

And so, we return to the question of victimhood. Religious conservatives are among the more vocal critics of an identity politics that seeks to advance the standing of minority groups as perpetual victims of inherently racist and sexist institutions. Ironically, the conservative Christian judgment of identity politics mirrors the progressive judgment of Christians: that the victim claim is overstated and that groups ought to find ways to get along with others – live and let live, in the old formula.

To argue about which group is “a bigger victim” is fruitless. Identity politics aside, we know at least that in the battle between progressives and Christians over the Sexual Revolution will continue because, as Harvard Law Professor Adrian Vermeule put it recently, “the tolerance celebrated by the proponents of liberalism appears to be more science fiction than fact.” The Revolution has decided it cannot coexist with Christianity, so it seeks to sideline the ancient faith.

The religious liberty movement has proven that Christians will not be passive victims in temporal affairs. Ever aware that “the sons of this world are shrewder in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light” (Luke 16:8), Christians have taken to the courts, where the battle over Biblical morality’s right to exist has been playing out for years – and will continue to do so.

But Christians engaged in the struggle, or watching it play out, must remember the lesson of the Saving Victim and His martyrs: sometimes God allows His children to be worldly victims to facilitate another kind of victory. Ten days after the Carmelites of Compiègne were martyred in 1794, the French Reign of Terror came to an end.

In the throes of cultural and political battle, the greater divine purpose is the anchor and hope of Christians: “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

 

*Image: The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs by Fra Angelico, c. 1423-4 [National Gallery, London]

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David G Bonagura, Jr.

David G. Bonagura Jr. teaches at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church: Trusting God's Plan of Salvation.

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