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The Leading Edge: The Hurricane That Destroyed the Freedom of Religion

November 22, 2013


The Story: “The Town FEMA Turned Down,” by Jonathan V. Last writing for

The Lead:

For a while, that was enough to placate the forces of modernity. But the sun has now set on that armistice. Both the left and the government—distinctions between the two are perhaps redundant these days—believe that the free exercise of religion must be whittled down to, as President Obama likes to say, a constitutionally guaranteed “freedom to worship as we choose.” In this view, people have a right to believe what they want, so long as they do so in the privacy of their own pew.

Like others before it, the Ocean Grove Camp Meeting Association is discovering that this new interpretation does not encompass what the written Constitution sought to protect—the “free exercise of religion,” the right to live in accordance with your beliefs. It’s already seven years since Catholic Charities of Boston closed its century-old adoption service; pluralism as understood in Massachusetts after the legalization of same-sex marriage left no room for an adoption agency committed to Catholic teaching about the family. At this writing, the Little Sisters of the Poor, women who have pledged their lives to their celibate religious vocation, are forced to sue the government to avoid being compelled to pay for contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortifacients. Ocean Grove, too, is waking up to the reality that wherever Americans motivated by religious faith once performed services for the public, often as partners of government, the government now intends to force them from the public square.

Why it Matters: I’m not sure I can improve on the warning implicit in Last’s paragraphs quoted above. The freedom of religion is a pervasive right that is delineated in the Constitution’s First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, but imbued to us as persons at our creation.

Shifting the dialog to ‘freedom of worship’ is intentional and, as Last makes clear in this article, destructive. And, it’s not destructive simply in the terms of destroying traditions and the push-pull between tradition and modernization. What this shift represents is a growing animus – not mere insistence of a pluralistic public dialog – toward the public display of fait, most specifically the Christian faith.

So, what is a Christian to do in the face of this challenging circumstance? Are we to retreat from the public square? Are we to capitulate to calls for tolerance that insist our faith is reserved to the private confines of church building and one’s residence? Should we simply ‘turn the other cheek’ when government shows preference for nonsectarian public assistance over and against assistance for sectarian organizations?

Our response must be a continued faithfulness to Christianity as a worldview. That is, we are onto merely Christian as a label we wear or even as a proud chest that we beat. We are Christians in all of life. As Christ sent us into all the world, we must not allow government to assert itself as god and press us back into the closet of faith. Christianity does not recognize a non-public faith.

And further, more practically, to suggest we ought to merely turn the other cheek and bow out of public assistance like this is to suggest that organizations that demonstrate their faith publicly are second class to governmentally-preferred secularist organizations. It encourages government to pick winners and losers based on creed. That is unjust.

Christians may not be forced to make life or death decisions like Bonhoeffer and other martyrs have heretofore, but neither did their stand against the tyranny of government toward their faith expressed publicly arrive overnight. And, at their heart, the oppression of the Nazis or Nero’s Rome, shared a similar thread to FEMA in this story: it preferred secularist to the sacerdotal.

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