Hope and realism in the face of assaults on religious freedom

A review of Mary Eberstadt’s new book, "It’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and its Enemies".

Mary Eberstadt’s new book, It’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and its Enemies, addresses one of the most critical issues faced by Christians in the West today: a threat to that most fundamental, First Amendment right to religious freedom. It’s deceptively approachable. Although relatively brief—less than 200 pages in length—and expressed in straightforward language, the book presents a hard-hitting and complex argument. Eberstadt’s conclusion is one of surprising and refreshing optimism: she suggests that if Christians come to understand the gravity of the threat and argue for their rights in the public sphere, they will ultimately secure them. 

One of the book’s primary contributions is its meticulous and current catalog of the left’s advances on religious liberty. Eberstadt writes that Christians in the United States fear that they will “live to see their beliefs increasingly vilified, their charities strangled by litigation, their children ostracized, their social standing further reduced, their commercial possibilities circumscribed, [and] their faith forced into the closet” (102). The collection of evidence provided shows that their concern is justified. In the last twenty years, atheism has gone from a “boutique phenomenon” to the prevailing cultural norm, complete with its own set of moral absolutes to replace their Christian predecessors. Eberstadt provides readers with a treasure trove of engaging stories that illustrate her point, from the nit-picking volunteers who forced a woman to remove her pro-life lapel pin at the National Gallery of Art to the algorithm designers at Facebook who shut down accounts of priests who use the title “Fr.” on their profiles. 

Eberstadt’s critics have objected that these examples do not point to a threat to religious liberty, but rather serve to illustrate the ferocity of the ongoing culture war. Although the woman at the National Gallery was asked to remover her pin because it was a “religious symbol,” people of goodwill who are not Christian can (and should) be pro-life. At this point, no one in the US is sitting in the pews, hauling priests off for making certain points in homilies (as they are in Canada), much less for celebrating Mass (as they are in countries like Saudi Arabia). 

Here Eberstadt draws a helpful distinction between those who “identify themselves as ‘Christian’ just by virtue of their baptism” and “the faithful whose beliefs have made them targets” (12). Though Christ tells us that those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness are blessed, we should try to be sure that people in our country do not suffer for standing up for the truth. For the most part (and with some noteworthy exceptions, such as the folks at Operation Christmas Child), Christians are not being persecuted for spreading the Gospel. Instead, they are being called to account for specific beliefs that clearly stem from biblical morality and are developed in Church teaching. It is not dangerous to believe for those who shrug off responsibility and (inaccurately) quote Pope Francis: “Who am I to judge?” 

More importantly, to the extent that secularists have gone after Christian education and charitable outreach in its quest for absolute moral authority, it is concretely a religious liberty issue. Eberstadt describes how Gordon College and King’s College both have had to fight to keep their accreditations because of publicly-held, unpopular beliefs. She speculates that these small, Protestant institutions have been attacked because they are easier targets than Catholic schools, who would have more resources at their disposal for their defense. Still, the implication is clear: if we do not stand with them as Catholics, we are next. 

The secularists have already gone head to head—and have won—against Catholic institutions that have not bowed to the spirit of the times. Perhaps the most egregious example is Boston’s Catholic Charities, which was forced to close the adoption agency that had been placing children in loving homes for 103 years. Why? Because a new municipal law stipulated that adoption services must be willing to place children in households without a married mother and father. In response, the agency shut its doors instead of capitulating to demands that would have them violate their Catholic beliefs. Even if one is in favor of adoption into nontraditional households, why not allow Catholic agencies to place the children in traditional homes and have other organizations place them elsewhere? This seems like a spiteful move, and the ultimate victims are displaced children. Eberstadt summarizes the principle: “It is impossible to hurt charities that help the poor [and otherwise marginalized] without hurting the poor.” In a country where freedom of conscience is respected, this cannot happen. 

While a comprehensive retelling of the most significant ways in which Christian religious liberty has been threatened in recent decades would have earned her book a spot on many Catholic bookshelves, Eberstadt makes an original contribution in the unifying image of the book: the secularist witch hunt. Some, like David Goldman in the National Review, say that the image does not quite fit because it’s more like an inquisition—the left’s tactics aim at rooting out heretics instead of proving fabricated offenses. However, the most important point is a good one: militant secularism shares some important features with the worst of fundamentalist religion. It sees offenses where there are none, and deprives people of the freedom to make moral decisions. Instead, everyone is forced to conform to the same way of thinking and acting. Say what you will about the doctrines and beliefs of the Catholic Church, freedom remains an essential feature of every moral act, according to her teaching. 

The most remarkable feature of Eberstadt’s book is its optimism. One of the biggest problems with the tactics of advocates of religious liberty is that they seem to always be on defense. It’s as if they are conceding, “Yes, I know that my views are mean or backward” and begging, “just let me express them anyway.” That is not compelling. If that is the position of believers, they will continue to cede ground until they lose entirely. While the title and contents of this book are realistic about the challenges that believers face in contemporary society, it does not predict the loss of the culture war as a foregone conclusion. Instead, Eberstadt rallies the troops and calls Christians to stand up for themselves. 

In many ways, the book is a reflection on the question, “What would it look like for Christians to be on offense in this situation?” Two answers are given in the final chapter: Christians must demand the civility that the left’s ideals of tolerance espouse, and stay informed about the condition of religious freedom in our nation. To the first, she adds that Christians have been allowing themselves to be called all kinds of names (often with the suffix “phobic”) and to be characterized in inaccurate ways. They must resist being labelled inaccurately, as only being against certain behaviors. The pro-life movement has generally done well here: they are not simply anti-abortion, but pro-mom, pro-baby, pro-family. The Catholic Church has the truth on its side: believers should take advantage of that and witness to the beauty and goodness of her Teaching. In order to do that effectively in the US context, Christians must follow Eberstadt second piece of advice: stay informed. I can’t think of a better way to start than for Christians to read this book and equip themselves to stand up for the future of faith in this country, with fortitude and hope.

It’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and its Enemies
by Mary Eberstadt
Harper, 2016
Hardcover, 192 pages

About Aurora C. Griffin 9 Articles
Aurora Catherine Griffin attended Harvard University, where she graduated Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in classics in 2014. There she served as president of the Catholic Student Association. She was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford University, where she received a graduate degree in theology. She now lives in Washington, D.C. and works at the Catholic University of America. Visit her online at auroracgriffin.com.