"What the Catholic Church in the United States really needs to stiffen its backbone is a good persecution." How often, I wonder, have I heard somebody say something like that? How often have I said something like it myself?

Be careful what you ask for—you may get it. The persecution of religion in America has begun, with the Catholic Church a prime target.

Don't think I'm making the wild-eyed claim that this new persecution either is or ever is likely to become a bloody one resembling the purges of the French and Mexican Revolutions or the Communist war on religion—eruptions of violence in which thousands of clergy, religious, and lay faithful were killed. It won't be a repetition of the Spanish civil war, just 75 years ago, when death squads of the anticlerical left executed the incredible total of 12 bishops, 283 religious women, 4,184 priests, 2,365 religious men, and an unknown number of laity whose only crime was being faithful Catholics.

No, the persecution of religion in the United States won't be like that. It will be a tight-lipped campaign of secularist inspiration in which the coercive power of the state is brought to bear on church-related institutions to act against conscience or go out of business.

As a case in point, consider what's been happening lately in Illinois. Catholic Charities in the Dioceses of Rockford and Peoria has abandoned the foster care field rather than fall in line with a new state law requiring placements with unmarried couples living in civil unions. (Three other dioceses are continuing to fight the law in court.) [NOTE: At publication, the Dioceses of announced they were dropping their lawsuit and pulling out of adoption and foster-care placement—Editor.]

Currently, too, the Supreme Court, having heard oral arguments, is mulling a case involving a teacher in a Missouri Synod Lutheran school who claims her rights were violated because she lost her job after getting sick. At the heart of the dispute is whether the government or the church gets to decide who is and isn't a "minister" of religion.

During oral argument, the attorney representing the Obama administration said in effect that government could compel the Catholic Church to ordain women priests if it reached the point of wanting to do that in the name of enforcing anti-discrimination laws. Never mind the First Amendment.

These and other such controversies revolve around efforts to invoke government power against religious bodies on behalf of rights claimed by groups that range from homosexuals seeking same-sex marriage to federal bureaucrats pushing coverage for contraception and sterilization in religious employers' health plans. Church-related schools, hospitals, and social services are targets now, but who can say tell where it might end?

Yes, there's a silver lining. Pope Benedict pointed it out during his September pastoral visit to Germany (as secularized a Western country as now exists). The lesson of history, he said, is that secularization aimed at reducing the worldly power of the Church often has the unintended consequence (unintended by the secularists anyway) of purifying the Church for its spiritual mission.

That's a comforting thought. But even so, religion has a duty to fight back against the secularist impulse—not least, in the United States, in defense of a church-state arrangement that's served the nation well but now is at risk of falling victim to power-hungry secularism.

In a letter to President Obama protesting administration moves against the Church, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, president of the Catholic bishops' conference, warned of a confrontation threatening "a national conflict between church and state of enormous proportions." The persecution has started.