The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has called for the faithful throughout the country to observe a “Fortnight for Freedom,” a “special period of prayer, study, catechesis, and public action [that] will emphasize both our Christian and American heritage of liberty.” The two-week period stretches from tomorrow, June 21, to Independence Day, July 4, and will be bracketed by special Masses in Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

What are the bishops up to with this “great national campaign of teaching and witness for religious liberty”? In keeping with their responsibilities as shepherds of the faith, they are calling their people—and anyone else who pays heed—to a heightened awareness of the centrality of religious freedom for any civilized society that claims to recognize the equal dignity of human beings.

But why now? Why should the bishops pick this season for a campaign of public education and advocacy on the subject of religious liberty? For religious-freedom watchers, that’s an easy question to answer. Under President Obama, religious freedom has been directly attacked when it has not been simply neglected or disregarded. This, after all, is the administration:

  • whose State Department has largely put on ice its statutory obligations under the International Religious Freedom Act;
  • in which we have heard the phrase “freedom of worship” increasingly supplant the broader “free exercise of religion”;
  • that opposes statutory conscience protections for chaplains and other personnel in the military in the wake of repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” while it also undermines the continued enforcement of the Defense of Marriage Act;
  • that has frozen out the USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services agency from federal contracting, despite its proven track record of success and efficiency in dealing with the scourge of human trafficking, because the Catholic agency will not refer victims for abortions or contraceptive services;
  • that has argued, with a straight face, that the First Amendment offers no shelter for religious institutions to enjoy a “ministerial exception” to federal employment statutes—and subsequently suffered a forceful 9-0 rejection of its view by the Supreme Court;
  • that promulgated the infamous Health and Human Services mandate for no-cost coverage of contraceptives, sterilization, and abortifacients under every employer health plan except those offered by the most narrowly defined “religious institutions”—a definition so narrow that 23 lawsuits have been filed against HHS on behalf of 56 plaintiffs, including Catholic dioceses, charities, health-care institutions, fraternal and missionary organizations, universities, and broadcasters, and some non-Catholic religious institutions as well.

The Obama administration, especially with its HHS mandate, poses the largest and most immediate threat to religious freedom in America today. But in the Easter week statement of their Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, titled “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” the bishops also notice other threats to which we should be alert. Among them are ill-considered state laws on immigration that would make it illegal for churches to assist poor people, or even celebrate the sacraments with them, if they are illegal immigrants. New York City has been discriminating against church groups that seek after-hours access to public school facilities on an equal footing with non-religious groups. And anyone paying attention to the novus ordo of same-sex marriage and civil unions will have noticed its increasing pressures on conscience, from the New Mexico wedding photographer fined for obeying her conscientious scruples about the meaning of marriage to the whole edifice of the Catholic Charities adoption services in Massachusetts being dismantled because they would not place children with same-sex couples.

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In short, the defense of religious freedom is more needed now than it has been for many years, and the confrontations between freedom and authority run deeply through layers of other political debates, over sexuality, marriage, health-care policy, discrimination law, humanitarian relief, and foreign affairs. New confrontations are bound to occur as long as our political system fails to restore and preserve a proper understanding of religious freedom.

Such a restorative effort is the purpose of the Fortnight for Freedom. As Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee, said at the bishops’ annual conference in Atlanta on June 13, the Fortnight “is not about parties, candidates, or elections . . . it is about the issue of religious freedom.” Religious freedom knows no party. The bishops are responding to an aggressive secularism that happens to be led by a Democratic administration. “Responding” is the key word here, for the bishops are not starting a fight, but neither are they backing away from one.

In this respect the leaders of the American Catholic Church are following the example of the martyrs and heroes whose history supplied the dates that bracket the Fortnight for Freedom. The two weeks begin with June 21, the vigil of the feast day of Saints John Fisher and Thomas More, martyrs who died within days of each other in 1535 in the England of Henry VIII. And they end with July 4, a date that needs no explanation for Americans, but which is insufficiently appreciated in relation to the question of religious liberty.

John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, and Sir Thomas More, who had risen in law and politics to be Chancellor of England, were each imprisoned in the Tower of London and ultimately executed (Fisher on June 22 and More on July 6, 1535) because of their refusal to bend their consciences to the political will of King Henry when he had himself declared supreme head of the church in England. On the 400th anniversary of their deaths, Fisher and More were canonized. In the Mass celebrating the declaration of their sainthood, Pope Pius XI said of Fisher that “he was not afraid to proclaim the truth openly,” and that he went to his death uttering “a fervent prayer of supplication for himself, for his people, and for his king. Thus did he give another clear proof that the Catholic religion does not weaken, but increases the love of one’s country.” As for the much more famous More, Pius said of him that “he knew how to despise resolutely the flattery of human respect, how to resist, in accordance with his duty, the supreme head of the state when there was a question of things commanded by God and the Church, and how to renounce with dignity the high office with which he was invested.” The pope went on—in those dangerous days in the Europe of 1935—to exhort his listeners “to imitate with all diligence the great virtues of these holy martyrs, and to implore for yourselves and for the Church militant their powerful protection.”

But if the Fortnight for Freedom begins with echoes of these great Catholic martyrs, it ends on the greatest of American “holy days”—Independence Day, the Fourth of July. On this day the Continental Congress promulgated the Declaration of Independence in 1776, appealing in its opening paragraph to the “laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” as the foundation of the case for America’s place among the nations of the world. From that first paragraph to its last, the Declaration is a ringing endorsement of the proposition that our rights come from the God who created us. We are “created equal,” the Declaration declares to be a “self-evident” truth. We are “endowed by [our] Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” We are made the sorts of creatures who by nature engage in the “pursuit of Happiness,” and must be free to do so as our consciences dictate. When we are pressed hard by rulers who aspire to “absolute Despotism,” we have not just a “right” but a “duty” to push back just as hard in the name of our freedom. In the extremity of a trial of strength with our oppressors, we should, like the founders, appeal to the “Supreme Judge of the World,” and pray for the “protection of divine Providence.”

The men who led the American Revolution did not understand it as a matter of their own willful choosing. It was, as they understood it, a duty and a necessity arising from the laws of nature made by the Almighty. The Declaration of Independence, for those with eyes to see, is suffused with a fervent belief that the God who made us free men and women also charged us with the duty of jealously guarding our freedom. It is only in our full enjoyment of all our proper liberties—religious liberty the first and foremost among them—that we can freely seek God and know Him, without coercion, without fear, without merely human constraints being placed on our relationship with the divine ground of our being.

The Declaration was signed by men of widely varying religious faiths and views, from those often said to be mere Deists such as Jefferson and Franklin, to the Presbyterian divine John Witherspoon, to various Anglicans and Quakers, to the ardent Catholic Charles Carroll (whose cousin John became the first American Catholic bishop). None of them objected that references to God’s providence, and judgment, and creation of us and our rights and duties, amounted to some kind of improper “mixing” of religion and politics. All could see the common ground of our political principles in the plainspoken theism of the Declaration. All could see that every form of freedom, including religious freedom, was at stake and at risk in the Revolution.

And all understood, in the years to come when the Constitution was written and amended, that the principles for which the Revolution was fought would be betrayed if the religious freedom of all was not firmly secured. George Washington wrote to the Baptists of Virginia shortly after becoming president that “no one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution.” And Washington later famously wrote to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, reflecting on the great change in the understanding of freedom wrought by the Revolution:

All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

To this Jewish audience, Washington addressed lines drawn from the book of Micah to express the aspiration of religious freedom in full for all Americans: “every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

No one who knows even a little of the history of religious freedom in the United States will pretend that the blessings of liberty have been effortlessly enjoyed by Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Muslims, and other religious minorities. The Catholic experience in particular has been marked by struggles of various kinds against discrimination and hostility. But the bishops chose wisely in setting the Fortnight for Freedom to describe an arc from the sacrifices of the great Catholic martyrs More and Fisher, to the great leap of faith, in a providential Creator who made us free, that we find in the Declaration of Independence. In these two weeks of prayer, reflection, and education, all Americans are invited to join in a thoroughly American rededication to the principles of religious freedom.