So much so that the brightness blinds.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (doing things that would have driven Leo XIII bonkers) is in the midst of rallying Rome’s faithful for another all out defense of religious liberty. As a registered Libertarian Party member (have I ever voted for a Libertarian, I don’t know), who am I to take issue with another communion’s defense of liberty? But as a registered church historian, I am having trouble making sense of the Bishops’ call (which I believe is different from Jason and the Callers’ call).
First, this fortnight coincides with the feast day of Saints Thomas More and John Fisher. Here’s how Timothy Cardinal Dolan explains it:
Our two weeks begin tomorrow, June 21, and include moving feasts, such as June 22, the feast of Saint Thomas More and Saint John Fisher, both martyrs in England as they prophetically defended the rights of the Church against intrusion by the crown; June 24, the Birth of Saint John the Baptist, the one who defended God’s law to a tyrant and lost his head because of his courage; and, of course, Independence Day.
I understand that evangelical Protestants are not as knowledgeable of church history as they should be, but to bring up More and Fisher is to court some of the old antagonisms that divide Protestants and Roman Catholics. Not that evangelicals would be comfortable supporting the English monarchy, but neither were George Whitefield or Jonathan Edwards forerunners of the kind of evangelical-Roman Catholic co-belligerency kicked off by Evangelicals and Catholics Together. In which case, at a time when the bishops want to support religious freedom more generally, why invoke saints executed by Protestants or bring back memories of times when Protestants and Roman Catholics both advocated religious freedom but for the sake of excluding the other side (I believe we call that religious suppression)?
Second, invoking martyrs has the effect of making contemporary believers’ look ungrateful (for the blessings of religious liberty) and their pligths look pretty tame. Cardinal Dolan highlights the following as instances of “challenges to religious liberty”:
The HHS mandate, which presumes to intrude upon the very definition of faith and ministry, and could cause believers to violate their consciences
Impending Supreme Court rulings that could redefine marriage, which will present a host of difficulties to institutions and people who stand on their faith-based understanding of authentic marriage as between one man and one woman
Proposed legislation at the national and state levels that would expand abortion rights, legalize assisted suicide, restrict immigrants from full participation in society, and limit the ability of Church agencies to provide humanitarian services
Government intrusion into the rights and duties of parents regarding their children
Overt persecution of believers in many countries of the world
All of these are matters for concern, but in the context of martyrdom they seem trivial. One might argue that these sorts of threats to religious liberty are the road to martyrdom, but that would take a conspiratorial w-w. On the other side, one could also argue that this is part of the bargain that religious believers make with modern liberalism — we don’t get our way on how the government should rule or how our neighbors should live but we get to worship our maker and keep our lives. I suspect Christians in Iran and Egypt would take that deal.
Third, the bishops’ understanding of religious liberty is a historical bait-and-switch. On the one hand, they invoke the founders of the U.S. (fine), but then on the other hand bring up the nation’s anti-Catholic Protestant past without identifying Protestants (smart move) but pinning the blame on government (Roman Catholics used to have a higher view of government than Protestants):
Historically, what have been significant religious liberty issues affecting Catholics in our country?
Equal treatment of Catholic Schools: Catholicism was introduced to the English colonies with the founding of the Province of Maryland by Jesuit settlers from England in 1634. However, the 1646 defeat of the Royalists in the English Civil War led to stringent laws against Catholic education and the extradition of known Jesuits from Maryland, as well as the destruction of the school they founded. During the greater part of the Maryland colonial period, Jesuits continued to conduct Catholic schools clandestinely. The American Revolution brought historic changes, and in 1782, Catholics in Philadelphia opened St. Mary’s School, considered the first parochial school in the U.S. In 1791, the ratification of the Bill of Rights, with the First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom, helped Catholics further cement the establishment of Catholic schools.
Regardless, anti-Catholic sentiment in the late nineteenth century led to opposition to parochial schools. State governments opposed providing funds to aid students attending parochial schools, which Catholics founded largely in response to the requirement to pray and read from Protestant Bibles in public schools. Some Members of Congress attempted to block all government aid to religiously affiliated schools with the proposed “Blaine Amendment” in 1875. This constitutional amendment was never ratified at the federal level, but many state legislatures adopted similar legislation and amendments. Those “little Blaine” amendments are still in place in the constitutions of about thirty-seven states, and still operate to block Catholic school students from equal participation in government educational benefits.
Anti-Catholic bigotry in presidential campaigns: During the 1884 presidential campaign, candidate James G. Blaine (who proposed the “Blaine Amendment” in Congress) attended a meeting in a church in New York at which a minister chided those who had left the Republican Party by stating, “We don’t propose to leave our party and identify with the party whose antecedents are rum, Romanism, and rebellion.” Blaine sat quietly during the anti-Catholic remark. The scene was reported widely in the press, and it cost Blaine in the election, particularly in New York City.
During the 1928 presidential campaign, Al Smith, a Catholic who had been elected governor of New York three times, was the Democratic candidate for president. It is widely believed that Smith’s Catholic beliefs played a key role in his loss of the 1928 presidential election, as anti-Catholic sentiment among the electorate was strong. Many feared that Smith would answer to the pope and not the constitution if elected president.
During the 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy’s Catholicism became a major issue in the election. Like Al Smith, Kennedy faced charges that he would “take orders from the Pope” and could not uphold the oath of office.
Establishment of diplomatic relations with the Vatican: In the first years of the United States, the new Republic had contacts with the Papal States. However, in 1867, Congress prohibited the financing of any diplomatic post to the Papal authority. This began a period of over seventy years when the U.S. did not have a diplomatic representative to the Pope, coinciding with a period of strong anti-Catholicism in the U.S. In 1940, President Roosevelt sent a “personal representative” to the Pope who served for ten years. However, when President Truman nominated an ambassador to the Vatican in 1951, opposition mounted, and President Truman abandoned the effort. Presidents Nixon and Carter sent personal representatives to the Vatican. In 1984, President Reagan announced that full diplomatic relations between the U.S. and the Vatican had been established, and the U.S. has continued to send ambassadors to the Vatican since then.
I hardly approve of this anti-Catholic bigotry in a nation that was supposed to be open to all faiths, but it is a strange narrative of U.S. history that begins with the founders notions of religious liberty (who were opposed to priestcraft and superstition — read Roman Catholicism) and then moves to the devilish ways (without naming them) that Protestants, who also defended religious liberty (and also opposed priestcraft and superstition), mistreated Roman Catholics. When Ray Nothstine writes that “Recapturing the fullness of religious liberty in America will require . . . a fundamental shift in how we view God and man and his relationship to the state,” he may want to consider how a theologically conservative view of God and man was responsible for Protestants and Roman Catholics persecuting each other.
Carl Trueman recently warned about the host of ways that mythologizing politics or religion polarizes the world. He is certainly right to argue that the religious right is not alone guilty of myth-making. At the same time, mythologizing religious liberty obscures how good our times are compared to those when church members actually died for their faith at the hands of members from the rival church. Not to mention that it obscures the rivalry that still exists (spiritually, not temporally) between those churches.
Update: Some Roman Catholics aren’t purchasing the bargain.