A Fading Freedom of Religion

The bishops of the United States have called for daily prayer leading up to the 4th of July to safeguard freedom of religion in our country.

That freedom is tenuous these days. There seems to be a conscious attempt by the federal government, in speech after speech, to replace freedom of religion with freedom of worship. That is not as subtle as it seems, for while permitting ritual acts of devotion within the walls of a building, it would limit the right to express one’s religious beliefs in public discourse. This applies to everything from displaying religious symbols to preaching and publishing outside the confines of a house of worship.

In Orwellian semantics, soon enough even the commandment to love the sinner but hate the sin becomes “hate speech.”

There are some religions, like some governments, that intrinsically are hostile to freedom of religion. Recently, a Christian in Tunisia was martyred for converting from Islam, and his killers chanted prayers against “polytheists” as they call Christians, while slowly slicing off his head. While this happens frequently, our own federal government and much of the media are conspicuously silent, for while they may not be interested in religious creeds, they demur from what the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration on Religious Freedom called “immunity from coercion in civil society.”

That Council said, “The Truth cannot impose itself except by virtue of its own truth.”  To guarantee freedom of religion is not to suggest that “all religions are the same.” Such indifferentism is deaf to Christ, who declares that He is the Truth itself. God proposes Himself to us, without imposing Himself. “Choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15). But once one makes that free choice, the intrinsic power of Christ goes to work. Thus He can say without any compromise of our free will: “It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you” (John 15:16).

In art, Impressionism depicts how an object is perceived. Another school of modern art called Expressionism shuns objects altogether and uses distortion to express the artist’s emotional state. Some secularists, even in high places of our culture, think of religious belief as Expressionism, like Matthew Arnold who called religion “morality touched with emotion.” Soon enough, the morality goes, and all that is left is emotion, and shouting replaces creeds.

The truth of Christ frees believers from the tyranny of emotion, and defies imperious attempts to exploit human need by replacing Mother Church with the Nanny State. Cultural expressionists may genuinely think that belief in God is just wishful thinking. This ignores the fact that Christ chooses us before we choose Him, as He took St. Paul by surprise. So the Apostle, among the first in a long line of martyrs, would say, “I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you” (1 Corinthians 11:23).

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Fr. George W. Rutler is a parish priest in Manhattan who is known internationally for his programs on EWTN, including Christ in the City and The Parables of Christ. He is the author of thirty-two books including newly released, A Year with Fr. RutlerHe holds degrees from Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins, Rome, and Oxford.

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