Christians find themselves in an unprecedented situation. In the past, the reigning powers herded them into the Colosseum to be fed to the lions. Now, what Pope Francis has called a more “polite persecution” means death by a million papercuts from letters announcing lawsuits, fines, dismissals, cancellation of public speakers, store closures, and the like, all issued by earnest bureaucrats from their orderly cubicles. In light of this new situation, believers are asking themselves how best to live and raise their children in their faith. They are considering their “options.”
Martyrdom is not new to Christianity, of course. It was present from the very beginning and continues even still, as we know from news reports of the great violence being done in many parts of the globe to those who confess the name of Jesus Christ. What is new in our part of the world, however, is the fact that the “sign that is rejected” is not so much the name―the confession and worship of, the enthusiasm for, the personal relationship with―but that very visible, public, material reality belonging to the realm of creation, into which that “name” entered: the reality of the body.
In our culture, nobody cares about our “sincerely held beliefs” buried deep down in the recesses of our private hearts, unless and until they have some bearing on that reality.
"Sincerely Held Beliefs"
It might strike believers as odd that “sincerely held beliefs” are being invoked in the face of coercion to cooperate in activities and/or acknowledgments of new behaviors and legal rights that run contrary to evidence available to the naked eye, without the “light of revelation.” Why, that is, should religious freedom be invoked in order to be excused from having to participate in the suppression of a perfectly healthy young woman’s fertility (in the face of all the evidence, medical, psychological, and otherwise, about the deleterious effects of such an action)? Or from having to concede, or even celebrate, that someone who is plainly a boy is a girl if he (or “she”) says so? Or from having to remove the relevant organ? Why, indeed?
One reason, of course, is historical, a reason deeply rooted in our nation’s founding and our psyches. By recourse to religious freedom―“the first freedom”―we can appeal to a principle of tolerance for divergent views concerning ultimate things, the things about which the state has “renounced all competence.” It is understandable why one might run quickly in the direction of religious freedom when thousands of Catholic and Evangelical institutions are at stake, and when it appears that the only game left is a contest of rights. And who among us is not happy that the Little Sisters of the Poor did not have to close their doors, thanks to the tireless efforts made on their behalf on the grounds of religious freedom?
Still, we ought to be aware of the cost we incur by appealing on such grounds. For reasons pertaining to the kind of religion that has dominated the American landscape and the narrow and reductive parameters of public reason in the liberal order, whatever we seek to defend in virtue of religious freedom (or the rights of conscience) will be invariably consigned to the realm of the private and “personal,” which is to say, the utterly irrational. To see this, one need only consider what it would mean for science were scientists to insist on the “freedom of their science” or to appeal to their “sincerely held beliefs about gravity.” This predicament for religion is true even when religious freedom concerns the exercise of religion―a dimension that is rightly defended―since no argument or rationale can be (or is) made publicly for what is being exercised other than the freedom to exercise it. And, again, without diminishing the importance of the fight to keep culture-forming institutions open, it would be a Pyrrhic victory if success in the legal arena came at the cost of vindicating the view that a person’s religion is essentially “nobody else’s business.” Many of those leading the fight in the courts are perfectly aware of these risks, of course, though all too often, those who cheer them on are unaware.
This was the concern that Patrick Deneen expressed following the immediate appeal to religious freedom made, above all, by Catholic institutions in the face of the HHS mandate:
By these appeals to the “rights” of religious organizations to hold certain religious beliefs – whatever those may be – and by an appeal to “conscience” informing that belief – no matter what it may hold – critics of the HHS policy have framed their response in the dominant privatistic language of liberalism. Their defense rests on the inscrutability and sanctity of private religious belief. It borrows strongly from sources of private religious devotion that lays no claim to public witness, in keeping with liberalism’s dominant mode of allowing acceptable religious practice so long as it remains outside the public square.
Not everyone appealed to religious freedom in the wake of the mandate, of course. Indeed, an organization of over 40,000 women formed precisely to make public arguments about why contraception was deleterious to a woman’s health at many levels, and why therefore it was bad medicine. Women Speak for Themselves provided much-needed relief from the widespread public perception that prohibitions coming from religious institutions have no greater status than the rules of “Simon Says.” But this alternative between recourse to religious freedom on the one hand and purely secular argument on the other just illustrates the point: by appealing to religious freedom, believers run the risk of retreating into a reasonless realm that effectively silences Christian public witness.
Leave aside, for the moment, the question of how much the dominant idea of “religious freedom” represents what religion actually thinks about itself. Even the once strategic trade-off achieved by the privatization of religion is no longer guaranteed.
In the aftermath of the HHS mandate, the Obergefell decision, and the campaign for transgender bathrooms and kindergarten curricula, the more religious freedom is touted, the more the very idea of it is challenged. We are surprised. After all, we think, we are not imposing anything on anyone else. Indeed, when we invoke religious freedom we are intentionally not making public arguments for what we do not want to provide or do—so much so that part of our defense includes pointing to the fact that these things are readily available elsewhere (at least in the case of contraception, wedding cake toppers with two tuxedos, and medically unnecessary hysterectomies). But for all that, we are told that we are asking permission to “hate.” Why?
There are two reasons (at least). The first is that the “sincerely held beliefs” currently in question are not sincerely held beliefs at all, however much they have been privatized for their own safety. Rather, they are rational judgments about the nature of things (marriage, the body, health, and so on)—things that bear immediately on social and public life.
However much the Bible does have to say about these things, they are not true because “the Bible says so.” Rather, “the Bible says so” because they are true. This point cannot be overstated, given the deep-seated tendency toward fideism in American Christianity (when it isn’t lurching toward Unitarianism, the Social Gospel, or “moralistic therapeutic Deism”). For Catholicism, this is also true about objects of faith, in the proper sense―things tied directly to and known only by Revelation, involving the nature of God and His providential design for the world―however much they might be rejected or contested. Even such truths are in themselves rational in the sense that they appeal to human reason, which is in principle open to them, even if it cannot come to them on its own.
But the contested issues of our day deal with realities staring everyone in the face, naked realities, which in principle can be known “by the light of reason.” Obvious things. When Christians speak about them, therefore, they are making a claim not just for themselves but for everyone. If one says that “two plus two equals four,” one is making a claim about the nature of things that applies everywhere and to everyone. This point may be lost on many believers who say certain “sincerely held” things about men, women, sex, marriage, and health. It is not lost on those listening to them. These understand that a claim is being made about the way things are. And this is why they object.
The second reason follows from the first. It is that the dominant culture has made a deep commitment to the resistance to things as they are. As has been explained elsewhere, this came about as the result of two revolutions of an anthropological nature, both of which have released freedom from its prior relation to a good not of its own making. The first of these was the liberal re-description of the “state of nature,” which took individuals out of their natural relations and made them contractual. The second of these was the human separation from and opposition to nature―“the mastery of nature”―a conquest to control first the natural world and then human nature itself. Issues having to do with the last of these are what have prompted “religious freedom” claims.
Because of this double reason, those who stand for reality―mostly only religious people now―are committing an act of sedition against the public order, which has declared itself so competent in ultimate things that it has subjected existence, the meaning of the universe, and the mystery of human life, no less, to “the right to define one’s own concept” of them. The early Christians in the Roman Empire were also accused of sedition. But what is perhaps clearer now―now that the culture is demanding that everyone call a woman a man and that its hospitals give her, a perfectly healthy woman, a hysterectomy―is that it is not the ones asking for the right to religious freedom who have “sincerely held beliefs,” but the culture itself! G.K. Chesterton saw this a long time ago when he said:
The great march of mental destruction will go on. Everything will be denied. Everything will become a creed. It is a reasonable position to deny the stones in the street; it will be a religious dogma to assert them. It is a rational thesis that we are all in a dream; it will be a mystical sanity to say that we are all awake. Fires will be kindled to testify that two and two make four. Swords will be drawn to prove that leaves are green in summer. We shall be left defending, not only the incredible virtues and sanities of human life, but something more incredible still, this huge impossible universe which stares us in the face. We shall fight for visible prodigies as if they were invisible. We shall look on the impossible grass and the skies with a strange courage. We shall be of those who have seen and yet have believed.
Given the relatively new landscape for believers, which has them “defending this huge impossible universe,” there are some opportunities, even if not victories in courts of law. The first is the opportunity to deepen their conception of religion and the freedom thereof, beyond the fideistic and privatistic account circumscribed by the liberal order.
The Second Vatican Council’s document on the subject is instructive. The freedom in question is the freedom to seek the truth. One of the main reasons Christians want this freedom is so that they can show how that truth is of “special value . . . in what concerns the organization of society and the inspiration of all human activity.” This would, of course, begin with helping “society” recognize what it and its basic cells are, and what the subject of “human activity” is.
Reaching back to St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, Joseph Ratzinger comments on the inextricable link between the natural desire for and knowledge of God—prior to and distinct from religious doctrine and faith—and the ability to recognize such things:
[The apostle] declares that in reality this society knows God very well . . . . ‘So they are without excuse (1:20).’ According to the apostle the truth is accessible to them, but they do not want it, because they refuse the demands that the truth would make on them . . . . When man prefers his own egoism, his pride, and his convenience to the demands made on him by the truth, the only possible outcome is an upside-down existence. Adoration is due to God alone, but what is adored is no longer God; images, outward appearances, and current opinion have dominion over man. This general alteration extends to every sphere of life. That which is against nature becomes the norm; the man who lives against the truth also lives against nature. His creativity is no longer at the service of the good: he devotes his genius to ever more refined forms of evil. The bonds between man and woman, and between parents and children are dissolved so that the very sources from which life springs are blocked up. It is no longer life that reigns, but death. A civilization of death is formed.
The point here is to recover the reasonable, and therefore universal, dimension of religion, beginning with the desire for God. We must fight not only for the “right” to it, and not only as concerns “religious things” typically understood, but as concerns the visible, rationally accessible things of the world. Recent events should have made this clear by now.
Additionally, as for their conduct in the public square, believers ought to appreciate the fact that it is almost exclusively from religious quarters that arguments are being made for our “being awake” (not in a dream). This ought to dispel some of the nervousness more typical of Catholics who rightly want to make rational (natural law) arguments in the public square—nervousness about “contaminating” those arguments with any taint of religion. Might it not be, on the contrary, that igniting the religious question−−beginning with the desire for God, which Ratzinger called “the very foundation of all rationality” ―will be the best, if not only, way forward toward a restoration of reason to a public square? One must, after all, have reasons to be open to reality and its demands. One must be able to perceive in it a “source from which life springs.”
None of this means, of course, that Christians are left “only” with witnessing, where witnessing is set off from making judgments about the current situation and public arguments for the things as they really are, not to mention waging legal battles. Pope Paul VI famously said that “modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers it is because they are witnesses.”
The witness of Christians―how they live together, raise their children, enliven parishes and neighborhoods, work and treat the natural environment, all the while drinking deeply from the Christian tradition―will be key in the current climate, just as it was in the first centuries. Those engaged in the public square ought to appreciate how necessary this (already public) activity is for helping the world to see the things for which they are offering rational arguments. And all believers ought to see that this option is not really an option at all, not only because it may now be the only remaining card in the deck, but because it is a basic feature of Christianity’s relation to the world, today and always.
At the same time, part of what it means to be a witness is to have seen and understood something and be able say something about it more than its “name.” If to be a witness means to bear something in the flesh, that something born in the flesh is a logos (a reason), not merely a “sincerely held belief,” just as it was for the Witness. Christian witness will mean therefore that Christians, like Him, must be teachers, ready to give an answer to anyone who asks a reason for the hope that is in them (I Pet. 3:15). We should not underestimate the attractiveness of that— especially now, in a world so deprived of it.
Margaret Harper McCarthy is Assistant Professor of Theological Anthropology at The John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and the Family at The Catholic University of America, and Editor of Humanum Review.