The following address was given at the Stand Up for Religious Freedom Rally held in Eugene, Oregon, on Friday, June 8, 2012.
One of my heroes is the great Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who spent decades recording the horrors and history of Communism until his death four years ago. In 1983, he gave an address that began with this statement:
More than half a century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of older people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia: “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.”
The Communist revolution was, of course, a violent and bloody one. Like the French Revolution, which took place in the late 1700s, it was openly opposed to belief in God and Christianity. While the leaders of those respective revolutions directly attacked belief in God, their paths to power, tyranny, and terror were made easier because so many men had forgotten God.
The American Revolution is often compared to the French Revolution. In fact, when I was in high school, the two were presented as twins, as if they were essentially the same in character and intent. But they were not.
While the leaders of the French Revolution savagely attacked tradition and order, the American founders were deeply concerned to preserve and respect the rich tradition inherited from the Magna Carta (1215) and the English Bill of Rights (1689). And while the French revolutionaries sought to violently overthrow Christianity and to establish a secular religion with a secular calendar, the American colonists sought independence from Britain in order to peacefully govern themselves as free men.
Many of the American founders were Christians; all of them recognized the transcendent and rational basis for authentic freedom.
Which is why the Declaration of Independence stated: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The Declaration of Independence also refers, in the opening paragraph, to “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” This past January, Pope Benedict XVI met with American bishops in Rome. During that meeting, he made the following remark about the founding of the United States and its founding documents:
At the heart of every culture, whether perceived or not, is a consensus about the nature of reality and the moral good, and thus about the conditions for human flourishing. In America, that consensus, as enshrined in your nation’s founding documents, was grounded in a worldview shaped not only by faith but a commitment to certain ethical principles deriving from nature and nature’s God. Today that consensus has eroded significantly in the face of powerful new cultural currents which are not only directly opposed to core moral teachings of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but increasingly hostile to Christianity as such.
We could spend hours, I think, considering the many important points raised by the Pope in his statement. I want to highlight just three points, especially in light of the HHS mandate, which is a direct assault on religious freedom, political freedom, and the deeply held, principled beliefs of millions of Americans.
The first point is this: True freedom is a gift from God. This is true of religious freedom, political freedom, and every other authentic freedom enjoyed by humans.
What we believe about freedom says a lot about what we believe about truth, goodness, the meaning of life, the origin of our existence, and the purpose of our time here on earth.
If we believe, as the American founders did, that freedom is a gift from the Creator, we also believe truth is objective and that human nature is oriented toward truth. We were created to know truth. Jesus Christ, who audaciously claimed to be the way, the truth, and the life, said to his disciples, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (Jn 8:31-32).
This connection between freedom and truth is essential, especially in an age such as ours, when the love of truth is often mocked and dismissed as old-fashioned, unsophisticated, and even bigoted.
In fact, there are two very different understandings of freedom and truth in the United States today.
On one hand, there are those who believe truth is a subjective thing that can evolve, change, or be completely turned inside out depending on my passing desires, emotional whims, or ideological goals.
Freedom, in this perspective, is the ability to do what we want, when we want, without consequence or damage to one’s conscience. The key qualifier, in our day, is that anything goes—as long as no one is hurt and whatever is done involves consenting adults. This approach is often rooted in passion and often leads to immorality. Consequently, this approach often results in severe damage to the most vulnerable among us: women, children, and the unborn.
But there is another approach, which says that freedom is not the ability to do what I want, but what I ought to do. Really authentic freedom and true maturity is achieved when we not only do what we ought to do, but we want to do it. This is the understanding of freedom taught, in various but complimentary ways, by men such as Aristotle, Plato, Paul, Augustine, and Aquinas.
It reflects the simple but profound truth that if God does not exist and objective truth is an illusion, then anything goes. If God is dead and truth is a lie, then everything is up for grabs. But if God does exist and transcendent, objective truth can be known through reason and by faith, then we have both real rights and real obligations, to both our Creator and to our fellow man.
In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “God is either of no importance, or of supreme importance.” There really isn’t any middle ground!
The second point is this: True freedom of every type is oriented to the good.
Although the word “freedom” is common, it isn’t always easy to define. But freedom, most people agree, is always freedom to do something. And if it that is the case, it must be oriented or focused on “some other good that motivates it and makes it worth having” (The Tyranny of Liberalism by James Kalb [ISI, 2008], 102). Freedom, in other words, is not an end in itself, but the way to an ultimate goal.
In the Judeo-Christian heritage upon which our country was established, “the good” is, in the end, the Creator and Savior of mankind. In the word of Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical on the splendor of truth: “To ask about the good, in fact, ultimately means to turn towards God, the fullness of goodness” (Veritatis Splendor, 9).
And yet, over the past several decades, we have been told that such statements aren’t welcome in the public square. We have been told that talk of God in the public square is intolerant, and therefore cannot be tolerated. Of course, if you wish to sing the praises of Gaia or worship a pine tree, you’re more than welcome to pitch a tent, preferably in a public park!
We are lectured, against all good sense, that the removal of religion from the public square is a sign of being open-minded. We are informed, without any evidence, that the removal of religious symbols and objects from public buildings signals an advance and improvement for civilization.
In short, we are told that the Judeo-Christian heritage of this country is offensive and embarrassing.
In other words, we are told that white is black, up is down, and left is right. In a perverse inversion so common with progressivism, those attacking faith are called “victims,” while those standing up for their beliefs are deemed “intolerant” and “narrow-minded” and “mean-spirited.” As my father taught me years ago, when you stand up to a bully, don’t be surprised if he acts like a helpless victim. After all, his goal is to intimidate and control you—and he really doesn’t care how he accomplishes his goal.
So, is it any surprise we are now told that the refusal of the Catholic Church and others to compromise core beliefs and violate formed consciences is called a “war on women” and an act of “partisan politics”?
The perverse irony of these cynical statements is that they are uttered by people who are deeply religious: their religion is politics and their god is the all-wise, all-knowing, all-powerful secular State. The 20th-century, after all, provides a wealth of evidence that when God is dismissed from the public square, the State is deified, divinized, and deigned worthy of complete submission.
Decades ago, the famous preacher and author Archbishop Fulton Sheen wrote, “Forget the ultimate destiny of man and a new god will be created for him—a cruel god which is the tyrannical State. When [ancient] Rome forgot its religion, it deified its emperors; when Western Civilization forgets its Christianity, it begins to deify the State.” This sort of modern, secular State, Sheen added, actively seeks to control the souls of men; it “possesses man from the cradle to the grave.”
The State, through the HHS mandate, wishes to bequeath contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs in the name of “women’s health,” using the money of those who believe such things are contrary to moral truth and harmful to the dignity of the human person.
We’ve come a long way, and it has mostly been the wrong way.
Fifty years ago it was argued that contraceptives would bring new-found freedom, help families and marriages, and “liberate” women. Instead, the sexual revolution turned into a horror movie, the family unit is in shambles, countless marriages have ended in ruin, and numerous women have learned the hard way that the promised liberation is nothing but a lonely sham.
Forty years ago it was argued that abortion was essential for the well-being of women and for what some call “reproductive justice.” G.K. Chesterton once noted that the term “birth control” is “sheer nonsense”; the same is true of “reproductive justice,” since there is no reproduction at hand and no justice afoot. Not only are words mangled and destroyed, so are the innocent unborn.
As theologian Joyce Little has written: “When the freedom of some human beings is upheld by bringing about the deliberate death of other, innocent human beings, freedom itself becomes simply another form of tyranny.”
Simply put, the HHS mandate is wrong because it violates both religious freedom and moral truth. It implicitly holds that further expanding and encouraging a culture of death is the best way to live the good life. It presumes that the State is not only a final authority on matters of physical health and moral well-being, but that the State can decide and define what is the ultimate good for man. How can this be? I think Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn would say, “Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this is happening.”
Good government rests on virtue and truth, not on raw power and soft tyranny. Good government respects the objective moral law and works to protect freedom. Good government refuses to become what Pope Benedict has called the “State which would provide everything.” Unfortunately today, in so many ways, that good government seems to be slipping away from us.
Which brings me to my third and final point: Freedom is a fragile gift that must be protected and defended at all times.
Here I would emphasize religious freedom, but all freedom is a fragile gift. As concerned citizens, we each have a right and responsibility to peacefully but firmly express our concerns, to render our criticisms, and to give public voice to the still, small voice of our well-formed conscience.
Archbishop Sheen, who was a very wise and insightful observer of religion and politics, said, “A religion that does not interfere with the secular order will soon discover that the secular order will not refrain from interfering with it.”
He wrote those words over 60 years ago (1948). What would he say today?
Pope Benedict XVI, in talking to the American bishops a few months ago, observed that the increasing hostility to Christianity and the moral teachings of the Judeo-Christian tradition means—in his words—“that the entire Catholic community in the United States come to realize the grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism which finds increasing expression in the political and cultural spheres.”
He emphasized a call to action: “The seriousness of these threats needs to be clearly appreciated at every level of ecclesial life. Of particular concern are certain attempts being made to limit that most cherished of American freedoms, the freedom of religion.”
And, in a reference to the HHS mandate, he spoke of “the right of conscientious objection…with regard to cooperation in intrinsically evil practices.” He noted how religious freedom in the United States is increasingly defined as “mere freedom of worship without guarantees of respect for freedom of conscience.”
Yet history tells us, again and again, that the suppression of religious freedom leads eventually to open tyranny, the violation of basic human rights, and even the persecution of those who refuse to worship the State. The Jewish philosopher David Novak, in his book titled In Defense of Religious Liberty (ISI, 2009), flatly and correctly states, “To deprive any religious tradition its right to make moral claims on its members, let alone make moral claims on other citizens based on an idea of natural law, is anti-religious persecution.”
He warns that a democracy must recognize that it is not divine and all-powerful, otherwise it quickly ceases to be a democracy. “Religious freedom,” he notes, “is something citizens bring to a democracy. It is not only their claim upon democratic society; it is their gift for it as well” (pp 86, 87).
The greatest gifts you can give this country are lives of faith, a passion for truth, rejection of falsehood, and commitment to the basic rights granted to each of us by our Creator.
May we and our children and our children’s children, through humility and fortitude and God’s grace, be able to one day say, “Men have remembered God; that’s why all this has happened.”