More on More and religious liberty

Here’s Sarah Posner on the unintentionally revealing invocation of St. Thomas More as the U.S. bishops’ symbol of “religious liberty”:

Invoking More as a symbol of religious freedom is highly problematic, for some of the Bishops’ evangelical allies, but especially for how citizens understand our democracy.

More, politician, philosopher, counselor to King Henry VIII and later his Lord Chancellor, opposed the Reformation — not just Martin Luther, not just Henry’s efforts to secure a divorce from Rome, but the contemporaneous efforts of William Tyndale to publish and distribute an English translation of the Bible in England. His pursued Tyndale with an inquisitorial zeal, and Tyndale eventually was burned at the stake.

… The United States government, unlike Henry’s England, is not under the religious authority of Rome, or any religious body, for that matter. (That’s in the Constitution, last time I checked.) Through the contraception mandate, or any other duly enacted law or regulation, such as the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the United States government is not flouting religious authority. That’s because it doesn’t answer to religious authority.

And more from Ed Kilgore:

St. Thomas More, despite the highly attractive reputation he has for Americans of every or no faith via Robert Bolt’s 1954 play A Man For All Seasons (subsequently made into a 1966 film that won six Oscars), was not exactly an apostle of religious liberty or freedom of conscience. As Henry’s chancellor, he was a very enthusiastic torturer and persecutor of “heretics,” particularly anyone bearing the virus of continental evangelical Protestantism. He was especially renowned for his relentless efforts to secure the execution of William Tyndale, the great evangelical Bible translator, succeeding (according to most accounts) in having Tyndale burned at the stake near Brussels. So far as I am aware, More never recanted of any of these acts; he went to his beheading for what he perceived as orthodoxy, not religious liberty.

Defenders of what they perceive as orthodoxy, not of religious liberty. Exactly.

The U.S. Catholic bishops have every right to defend what they perceive as orthodoxy in their churches and throughout all the realms ruled over from their holy thrones. But they have no right at all to seek to enforce what they perceive as orthodoxy through the courts of the United States. Their attempt to do so is unjust and thus, however distorted their perceptions of “orthodoxy,” not merely illegal and unconstitutional, but — like St. Thomas More’s torture of those he deemed heretics — a sin.

* * * * * * * * *

In other religious liberty news, a federal judge has ordered the Sussex County (Del.) Council to stop abusing Christianity and the Gospels.

The council — in traditional Sussex County fashion — likes to use the trappings of religion to make itself appear pious. But apparently it wasn’t enough for the council just to misuse the Lord’s Prayer as a political fashion accessory — they wanted to go even further, claiming that the words of that prayer are meaningless.

“Our Father,” the prayer famously begins. And the Sussex County Council dismisses its meaning starting with that very first word. They claimed that this prayer — quoted from the Christian Gospels — was not sectarian. Who is the we in that “our”? It doesn’t matter, says the Sussex council, albeit disingenuously. It could be anyone.

“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” the prayer continues. To whom does that word “thy” refer? Again, the Sussex County Council says it doesn’t matter. It could be anyone. Or everyone. Or no one. It’s not a sectarian prayer, they say. It’s not actually The Lord’s Prayer, just, you know A Lord’s Prayer. Any Lord, apparently. Or no Lord. No particular, sectarian Lord, anyway.

Happily, a federal judge viewed things differently. This prayer from the Christian Bible and to the Christian God, the judge said, is a Christian prayer.

The fact that The Lord’s Prayer has been the only prayer recited at the beginning of Council meetings for over six years is likely to be found to demonstrate that the Council gives Christianity an unconstitutionally preferred status, sending a message to meeting attendees that the Council is promoting the beliefs of Christianity.

Yeah, the judge is probably right in guessing that the council views itself as “promoting the beliefs of Christianity.” But when this is how they go about promoting Christianity — by enforcing it through political power and equating it with political power — then there’s really no difference between promoting it and attacking it.

"And here is your straw man.In addition, if you find yourself taking the word of ..."

‘If no one asks, then no ..."
"Allowing the money of others to determine your morals is an interestingly mercenary approach to ..."

‘If no one asks, then no ..."
"Let's not mythologize Putin more than necessary. It's pretty damn hard to give one person ..."

‘If no one asks, then no ..."
"That is funny, coming from you. I recognize your type now."

‘If no one asks, then no ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • aunursa

    The only ones who claim that the Lord’s Prayer and a graveside cross are nonsectarian are Christian religious leaders and organizations — and they claim so vociferously.  The great irony is that the zeal with which they so loudly make that claim is itself irrefutable evidence against the claim. 

  • Magic_Cracker

    The closest I can get to a nondenominational “Lord’s” prayer is:

    Our parent, who art somewhere, you have a name. Thy preferred social order come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is wherever else you are. Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the place, the power, and the glory, forever.

  • Sussex County again? Well I took my shot at the “It is as generic and universal a prayer as can be crafted,” Lord’s prayer one of the previous times they came up.  The whole thing can be found here.

    It begins thus:

    Our Father, who may be female or generdless or polygendered or just plain multiple and who may or may not have a relationship with us and might not even exist at all, who art in heaven, by which we mean whereever her/she/it/they happens to be, or indeed not be since we’ve established that he/she/it/they might not exist in the first place.

    And carries on for quite a bit longer.

  • JayemGriffin

    Even that assumes certain religious tenets that not everyone shares: there is a singular G/godlike figure whom humans can appeal to; s/he/it is generally benign; evil exists, etc. Any kind of religious frame is inevitably going to exclude somebody.

  • Magic_Cracker

    I know. Like I said, closest I could get.

  • Nathaniel

     To be fair to them aunursa, they do try to be inclusive. Nowadays rather than refer to our Christian heritage they talk about our JUDEO-Christian heritage.

    Doesn’t that make you feel better?

  • Yeah. They frequently use it while advocating positions in absolute opposition to the teachings and values traditional to those Judeo-s.

  • histrogeek

    The Catholic bishops are doing more damage to Thomas More’s reputation than, debatably, anyone who isn’t Henry VIII. Accusations about Tyndale that More helped hunt down Tyndale are fairly recent, only about 20 years old. His heretic hunting in England has traditionally been overlooked. His biography usually covers his scholarship, especially Utopia, followed by a detailed account of More’s role in the Great Matter, skipping over anything else he might have done as a minister.
    And of course Bolt polished his reputation to the point that someone could wonder how such a conscientious man could possibly have held the same job as corrupt Cardinal Wolsey or opportunistic and brutal Thomas Cromwell.
    Now though, articles are reminding anyone who cares that More was also a Renaissance politician and Catholic fanatic. Nice job bishops.

  • LL

    Why am I not surprised that the Catholic Church canonized Thomas More? Just because Henry VIII was a colossal asshole doesn’t mean More wasn’t also. 

    Not that the Catholics are the only ones who celebrate reprehensible people. But they are doing a great job of reminding us again and again that they are so good at it. 

  • Amaryllis

    And of course Bolt polished his reputation to the point that someone
    could wonder how such a conscientious man could possibly have held the
    same job as corrupt Cardinal Wolsey or opportunistic and brutal Thomas

    An argument from fiction is no argument. But I’m irresistibly reminded of Hilary Mantel’s depiction of Thomas Cromwell thinking about Thomas More:

    He never sees More without wanting to ask him, what’s wrong with you? Or what’s wrong with me? Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas, in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too.

    They were, as far as  I can see, all of them opportunistic and corrupt. “Corrupt” may not even be exactly the word: it was the way government was carried on. But “Western Civilization,” whatever that is, has spent more than four centuries disentangling civil power from religious power, the uncertainties of this world from the “hints and guesses” about the next. I cannot, for the life of me, understand why the bishops think it’s a good idea to go backwards.

  • I cannot, for the life of me, understand why the bishops think it’s a good idea to go backwards.

    Because Catholic bishops have been losing power for centuries, and they want that power back. And now they’re being prosecuted and imprisoned for rape, a crime that has a ridiculously low prosecution, conviction, and imprisonment rate. If they can be called out for that, they can be called out for anything.

  • Tricksterson

    So according to the Sussex County Council the Lord’s prayer could be to the Horned God?  Nifty.

  • Jessica_R

    As a palate cleanser, I can stop looking at these,

  • I also doubt the folks claiming the Lord’s Prayer is non-religious would use the New Zealand Prayer Book version:

    Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,

    Source of all that is and that shall be,

    Father and Mother of us all,

    Loving God, in whom is heaven:

    The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!

    The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world!

    Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!

    Your commonwealth of peace and freedom sustain our hope and come on earth.

    With the bread we need for today, feed us.

    In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.

    In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.

    From trials too great to endure, spare us.

    From the grip of all that is evil, free us.

    For you reign in the glory of the power that is love, now and for ever.


  • John

     We use that one on occasion at our church.

  • michael mcshea

    It took four centuries for the RCC to canonize Thomas
    More.  Why so long? Time for the dust to
    settle on the corruption charges and stealing from Henry’s treasury to be
    forgotten and propaganda to be rewritten in the Vatican?  Does not help victims like John Tewksbury,
    book binder, book seller and typical barbeque victim of More etc.   Burn
    baby burn – books and people = religious liberty? Thomas More was just as corrupt
    as any other medieval lawyer, king or pope.

  • Lunch Meat

    Every time I read this, I can’t help hearing it in Eddie Izzard’s voice. That’s quite a compliment.

  • Sigaloenta

    And even if we want to simply focus on Thomas More as the Martyr Whose Conscience Refused To Bow To Authority (and ignore his long career as an enforcer of authority against other peoples’ consciences and bodies)… the thing about martyrs is that they put their own lives on the line for their beliefs.  Putting someone else’s life on the line for the sake of your beliefs (by, e.g., denying them healthcare that you don’t believe in) is usually called terrorism.

  • I seem to remember hearing that there were multiple versions of the Lord’s Prayer in use by different denominations. So it’s not just an exclusively Christian prayer, whatever version they used also marks them as belonging to a particular (group of?) sect.

    Oh, and any kind of prayer automatically excludes those who believe in no gods at all.

  • christopher_young

     In the early 16th century being a colossal asshole was pretty much a core competency for the job of being a senior government minister anywhere in the world.

  • Mostly I just think it is crazy how strongly they argue “no, no, we’re just taking the Lord’s name in vain!”

  • “Despite the lack of evidence, I think there are invisible beings.  ‘My Favorite Invisible being,’  & also I think there are undetectable dimensions where dead people go & invisible beings live, so ‘In Invisible Ghost Utopia,’ & I think his name is super important & we should only say it when we are invoking him in a proper context, so ‘hallowed be thy name’…”

    Wait, I got like three phrases in & then there is a piece of the Lord’s Prayer that says not to misuse it BUILT INTO IT.  Weird.  Like, the Lord’s Prayer is constructed to remind you that if you are saying it & saying that it is meaningless or generic then you are DOING IT WRONG?  Huh.

  • alfgifu

    In the early 16th century being a colossal asshole was pretty much a core competency for the job of being a senior government minister anywhere in the world.

    The more things change…Although, to be fair, it’s easier to remember senior government ministers who were colossal assholes.  The quiet, competent ones don’t tend to stick in the public consciousness.  Unless, like Pepys, they leave behind scandalous and entertaining diaries.

  • histrogeek

     They all were opportunistic and corrupt; they had to be. You didn’t get to be Lord Chancellor in a Renaissance court for your perfect attendance, especially if you were a “new man” like Cromwell, More, and Wolsey were. In their popular historical reputation though, Wolsey was an embezzler and typical Renaissance cardinal (which he was of course but he was very talented as a chancellor), Cromwell was a perjurer, torturer, and murderer (also true), but More is a saint, above the petty and brutal politics of his age. Now thanks ironically to the Catholic bishops, the truth about More is becoming better known.
    You’d think that the cardinals would look at what happened as a result of More’s (and Clement’s) clumsy and ill-advised attempt to meddle in civil politics. John, almost Cardinal, Fisher killed. Monks and nuns tossed out and the monasteries pillaged. Thousands of Catholics killed. Millions suffering severe discrimination for their Catholic faith throughout the British Isles for centuries. More than a few ugly wars. All that because the Pope wouldn’t bend over a divorce, which most scholars at the time agreed was essentially justifiable.
    There’s a lesson there about stubborn insistence on poorly reasoned theology. Can’t think what that might be though…