The following post from the July 27 PublicDiscourse is based on ad addressed given by Archbishop Charles Chaput at the Napa Institute annual meeting that last week in July.
A friend of mine, a political scientist, recently posed two very good questions. They go right to the heart of our discussion today. He wondered, first, if the religious freedom debate had “crossed a Rubicon” in our country’s political life. And second, he asked if Catholic bishops now found themselves opposed—in a new and fundamental way—to the spirit of American society.
We should begin by recalling that even at the height of anti-Catholic bigotry, Catholics have always served our country with distinction. More than eighty Catholic chaplains died in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. All four chaplains who won the Medal of Honor in those wars were Catholic priests
Time and again, Catholics have proven their love of our nation with their talent, hard work, and blood. So if the bishops of the United States ever find themselves opposed, in a fundamental way, to the spirit of our country, the fault won’t lie with our bishops. It will lie with political and cultural leaders who turned our country into something it was never meant to be.
That said, let’s turn to my friend’s first question. The Rubicon is a river in northern Italy. It’s small and forgettable, except for one thing. During the Roman Republic, it marked a border. To the south lay Italy, ruled directly by the Roman Senate. To the north lay Gaul, ruled by a governor. Under Roman law, no general could enter Italy with an army. Doing so carried the death penalty. In 49 BC, when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon with his Thirteenth Legion and marched on Rome, he triggered a civil war and changed the course of history. Ever since then, “crossing the Rubicon” has meant passing a point of no return.
Caesar’s march on Rome is a very long way from our nation’s current disputes over religious liberty. But “crossing the Rubicon” is still a useful image. My friend’s point is this: Have we, in fact, crossed a border in our country’s history—the line between a religion-friendly past, and an emerging America much less welcoming to Christian faith and witness?
Let me describe the nation we were, and the nation we’re becoming. Then you can judge for yourselves.
People often argue about whether America’s Founders were mainly Christian, mainly Deist, or both of the above. It’s a reasonable debate. It won’t end any time soon. But no one can reasonably dispute that the Founders’ moral framework was overwhelmingly shaped by Christian faith. And that makes sense because America was largely built by Christians. The world of the American Founders was heavily Christian, and they saw the value of publicly engaged religious faith because they experienced its influence themselves. They created a nation designed in advance to depend on the moral convictions of religious believers, and to welcome their active role in public life.
The Founders also knew that religion is not just a matter of private conviction. It can’t be reduced to personal prayer or Sunday worship. It has social implications. The Founders welcomed those implications. Christian faith demands preaching, teaching, public witness, and service to others—by each of us alone, and by acting in cooperation with fellow believers. As a result, religious freedom is never just freedom from repression but also—and more importantly—freedom for active discipleship. It includes the right of religious believers, leaders, and communities to engage society and to work actively in the public square. For the first 160 years of the republic, cooperation between government and religious entities was the norm in addressing America’s social problems. And that brings us to our country’s current situation.
Americans have always been a religious people. They still are. Roughly 80 percent of Americans call themselves Christians. Millions of Americans take their faith seriously. Millions act on it accordingly. Religious practice remains high. That’s the good news. But there’s also bad news. In our courts, in our lawmaking, in our popular entertainment, and even in the way many of us live our daily lives, America is steadily growing more secular. Mainline churches are losing ground. Many of our young people spurn Christianity. Many of our young adults lack any coherent moral formation. Even many Christians who do practice their religion follow a kind of easy, self-designed gospel that led author Ross Douthat to call us a “nation of heretics.”Taken together, these facts suggest an American future very different from anything in our nation’s past.
There’s more. Contempt for religious faith has been growing in America’s leadership classes for many decades, as scholars such as Christian Smith and Christopher Lasch have shown.But in recent years, government pressure on religious entities has become a pattern, and it goes well beyond the current administration’s Health and Human Services mandate. It involves interfering with the conscience rights of medical providers, private employers, and individual citizens. And it includes attacks on the policies, hiring practices, and tax statuses of religious charities, hospitals, and other ministries. These attacks are real. They’re happening now. And they’ll get worse as America’s religious character weakens.
This trend is more than sad. It’s dangerous. Our political system presumes a civil society that pre-exists and stands outside the full control of the state. In the American model, the state is meant to be modest in scope and constrained by checks and balances. Mediating institutions such as the family, churches, and fraternal organizations feed the life of the civic community. They stand between the individual and the state. And when they decline, the state fills the vacuum they leave. Protecting these mediating institutions is therefore vital to our political freedom. The state rarely fears individuals, because alone, individuals have little power. They can be isolated or ignored. But organized communities are a different matter. They can resist. And they can’t be ignored.
This is why, for example, if you want to rewrite the American story into a different kind of social experiment, the Catholic Church is such an annoying problem. She’s a very big community. She has strong beliefs. And she has an authority structure that’s very hard to break—the kind that seems to survive every prejudice and persecution, and even the worst sins of her own leaders. Critics of the Church have attacked America’s bishops so bitterly, for so long, over so many different issues—including the abuse scandal, but by no means limited to it—for very practical reasons. If a wedge can be driven between the pastors of the Church and her people, then a strong Catholic witness on controversial issues breaks down into much weaker groups of discordant voices….
In many ways I believe my own generation, the boomer generation, has been one of the most problematic in our nation’s history because of our spirit of entitlement and moral superiority; our appetite for material comfort unmoored from humility; our refusal to acknowledge personal sin and accept our obligations to the past.
But we can change that. Nothing about life is predetermined except the victory of Jesus Christ. We create the future. We do it not just by our actions, but by what we really believe—because what we believe shapes the kind of people we are. In a way, “growing a culture of religious freedom” is the better title for these comments. A culture is more than what we make or do or build. A culture grows organically out of the spirit of a people—how we live, what we cherish, what we’re willing to die for.
If we want a culture of religious freedom, we need to begin it here, today, now. We live it by giving ourselves wholeheartedly to God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ—by loving God with passion and joy, confidence and courage; and by holding nothing back. God will take care of the rest. Scripture says, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Ps 127:1). In the end, God is the builder. We’re the living stones. The firmer our faith, the deeper our love, the purer our zeal for God’s will—then the stronger the house of freedom will be that rises in our own lives, and in the life of our nation.
To read entire address, click here.