The Hope of Zechariah: Freedom Beyond a Fortnight

The Hope of Zechariah: Freedom Beyond a Fortnight June 24, 2013


The longing for religious freedom is as old as religion. On this Solemnity of the Nativity of John the Baptist, falling within the US Catholic Bishops’ Fortnight for Freedom, it’s worth looking at what that longing and that freedom really mean—and what working to protect that freedom and fulfill that longing may require of us.

The Fortnight for Freedom, you might recall, was instituted last year as a period of prayer, fasting, and action to defend religious liberty in the United States. Prompted by the Obama administration’s support of a legal mandate incorporated in the Affordable Care Act that would require Catholic institutions and employers to fund free access to contraception and sterilization for women employees—a mandate that does indeed violate Catholic teaching, whatever the statistics say about Catholic practice and whatever compromises individual institutions and diocese have made with this issue in the past—the Fortnight for Freedom quickly became coopted to serve Republican political interests and conservative resistance to federal health care legislation in general.

There were yard signs and bumper stickers and Big Foam Fingers. There were sermons—some terrific, some grandstanding—prompted by the long list of Church-state martyrs commemorated during the two weeks between June 21 and July 4 (Thomas More, John Fisher, and their companions from the English Reformation; the prototypical martyrs of Rome, including Ss Peter and Paul, Philip Minh of Vietnam, John himself, speaker of truth to power, and an uncountable host of others). There was a real case for bringing religious freedom to the forefront of the American conversation, but despite all denials to the contrary, last year’s F4F got its energy from an election year.

It’s on again in 2013, though with less steam. Already the blogosphere is lamenting the movement as a failure, either (depending on your end of the bench) because our bishops are weak, dissipated Pilates without the Plymouth Rocks to stand up to Caesar or because our bishops are weak, dissipated tools of the Tea Party who care nothing about freedom from poverty or injustice or disease.

I say throw context and partisanship out the window. Let’s look, not only as Catholics, but as Americans and Earthlings and humans, at what it is we’re praying for. Let’s not fall for a narrow construction of the First Amendment here in the US, or a narrow understanding of what a universal freedom of religion might look like.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” That’s what the First Amendment says. Note that it doesn’t say anything about separation of Church and state or about “freedom to worship” alone (as though anything outside a church/synagogue/mosque/temple/meeting house/sacred circle had absolutely no connection to faith). What if we took that seriously? What if the state just allowed people to exercise their religious faith or lack of it freely, without interference? What if the state protected the free exercise of religion and Americans respected one another’s religious beliefs or lack of them? What if we rendered unto Caesar what was Caesar’s, and to God what was God’s?

Ssssssssh. I know. The implications might include, at the very least, the loss of tax-free status for religious institutions. Yes, big problems—but also the potential to preach and advocate and work and fundraise and be part of the democratic process as authentically as we wish. Let parents send their kids to school wherever they please, and if they want to pray there, or study the Bible or the Q’uran or Richard Dawkins, if they want to sing Gregorian chant in the high school chorus or paint Bible verses on their cheerleading faces or wear a hijab while playing volleyball, let ’em do it. THAT’s freedom of exercise.

And that also means the state has no business making laws that conflict with religious beliefs. No outlawing circumcision. No pressuring Catholics or Orthodox Christians or Orthodox Jews or Muslims to ordain women (oh, Jimmy: you can take the boy out of his Southern anti-Catholicism, but you can’t take the Southern anti-Catholicism outta the boy). No suing or prosecuting people or businesses who refuse on religious grounds to fill abortifacient prescriptions or perform abortions or book gay weddings or bat mitzvahs, or organizations who wish to limit membership to their coreligionists or segregate members or students by gender.

Of course, that also means no outlawing abortion or contraception or civil unions (which people are going to call marriage anyway no matter what we believe marriage to be) on religious grounds. Or polygamy, or refusal to transfuse blood, or snake handling, or ceremonial peyote or ganja smoking, or ritual animal sacrifice. Because those kinds of laws DO violate the First Amendment, by assuming the authority to define what is real religion and what is not, or by imposing upon all believers and nonbelievers teachings they do not share and in some cases abhor. And those are just the issues raised by respect for ongoing and sincere religious traditions, not Flying Spaghetti Monster stuff. (Not that I don’t think the Pastafarians are sincere.)

There would be lots of challenges to living in a world of real tolerance, real respect for one another’s traditions and teachings. But that’s the only true religious freedom. Everything else is either freedom from religion—a blurring to sterile grayness of the longest, deepest, widest and most beautiful human diversity—or the imperial triumphalism of one religion over another.

Catholics have much to think and pray and act about during these two weeks. We who have been sent to proclaim Good News to every corner of the world, by Jesus who honored Romans and Samaritans, in the spirit of Peter and Paul who dared to earn the trust of Gentiles, and we who have—to our great and terrible culpa, been guilty of some of the worst state-sponsored violations of religious freedom in history—do well to remember that it is no good agitating for religious freedom while making viciously anti-Islamic proclamations, or engaging in pissing contests with atheists, or laughing at redneck Baptists, or saying the nauseating and vile things we are heard to say about God’s female and homosexual children.

Pope Francis, on a global level, is offering us the most amazing witness of what it is like to find joy and grace in traveling the road of life with all human pilgrims, while holding true to and sharing the path we know Jesus walked. That is true religious freedom, lived from the heart with sincerity and humility. This kind of freedom is never the state’s to grant, is not contingent on any laws. It can be lived and witnessed no matter how SCOTUS rules on same-sex marriage, no matter what trades we are forced to make to carry out the mission of healing the sick, no matter if Roe v Wade is never overturned. It is strengthened, not betrayed, by our working and walking together with those with whom we disagree.

During this Fortnight for Freedom, I am recalling that in June my pagan sisters and brothers honor the turning of the year at the Solstice. My Muslim brothers and sisters celebrate Lailat al Miraj, commemorating Muhammad’s Night Journey from Mecca to Jerusalem, here he was taken up into heaven to receive the teaching of the five daily prayer times, and  Lailat al Bara’ah, the feast on which the merciful Allah forgives all people—with the exception of those who nurture hatred in their hearts. Orthodox Christians celebrate Christ’s Ascension, the Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and All Saints’ Day. Sikhs remember Guru Arjan Dev, the first martyr in their tradition. Mormons recall the death of Joseph Smith at the hands of a mob. My atheist friends are being themselves; cool with it if I want to pray, as long as I don’t get on them. And I am wishing them the freedom to do so.
More than two millennia ago, a man struck mute by his belief that religious freedom under oppressive imperial rule was as impossible as the birth of a child to an elderly barren couple saw hope dawn in his child’s face. His tongue was freed to sing. May the canticle of Zechariah be our own prayer, and the hope we enact, not only during these two weeks, but for ever:

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel;
he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty savior,
born of the house of his servant David.

Through his holy prophets he promised of old that he would save us from our enemies,
from the hands of all who hate us.

He promised to show mercy to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant.

This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
free to worship him without fear,
holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life.

You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way,
to give his people knowledge of salvation
by the forgiveness of their sins.

In the tender compassion of our God
the dawn from on high shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,
and to guide our feet into the way of peace. (Luke 1:68-79)

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