Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

A Demand for Freedom

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

A Demand for Freedom

Article excerpt

It's a nudge here and a shove there. A push from one side and a kick from another. Little things, for the most part, and surprisingly often the perpetrators retreat when directly challenged, but only to watch someone else step in to take their place. And the Christian churches have responded to all the recent thumps and torments with the bumbling confusion of a schoolboy giant.

You remember that boy from the schoolyard: an overgrown child, harassed by a ring of nimble bullies. He's a little pudgy and a little stupid, good-natured but slow, big but clumsy. He flails around, and he doesn't believe they actually mean it, and he really only wants to be liked by aiem-tbem, all the cruel little boys and girls who think of themselves as clever, all the spiteful little boys and girls who think of themselves as cool. But they never will like him. He's not clever, and he's not handsome, and rolls of fat show above his collar. If he ever does shove back, they can run to the teacher to complain that the big kid hurt them, and, meanwhile, tormenting the confused boy makes them feel brave and superior and quick.

So the California court penalizes doctors for referring a patient to another clinic because they didn't want to perform in-vitro fertilization for an unmarried couple. A state representative in Connecticut submits legislation that would force the Catholic Church to divest itself of its parishes. A judge in Montana decides that healthcare providers are required to arrange for euthanasia when a patient requests it. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission rules against a college in North Carolina for attempting not to provide its employees with health insurance that covers contraception. A charity in Massachusetts is forced out of the adoption business. The Ninth Circuit attempts to compel a park to remove a memorial cross rather than trade the land with the cross into private hands. A New Hampshire divorce court orders a Christian mother to stop homeschooling because her daughter "appeared to reflect her mother's rigidity on questions of faith." The president allows a diminished form of funding for faithbased institutions to continue, but only if these religious organizations stop hiring on the basis of their religion. An Illinois druggist is ordered to dispense abortii acients or to close his business. The blizzard of lawsuits to ban Christmas displays is beginning to fall on us once again, the most bizarre of the nation's holiday traditions.

Not one of these is a vital wound to the practice of American religion. Even together, they don't add up to anything like a deathblow. Conservatives shouldn't give in to the temptation to think that the rise of their political opponents portends the crushing of faith, anymore than the left should have declared diat the administration of George W. Bush meant the creation of American theocracy. Remember all those anti-Bush books back in 2005 and 2006- James Rudin's The Baptizing of America, and Michelle Goldberg's Kingdom Coming, and Kevin Phillips' American Theocracy, and dieir ilk? They seemed nutty then, and they look even nuttier in hindsight, and it would be almost as nutty for the political right to imagine today that die nation is on the edge of throwing Christians to the lions- or that our situation is comparable to that of places with real and deadly persecution: Tibet, or Sudan, or Vietnam, or Timor, or India. Besides, American exceptionalism has always depended on the fact diat our major political parties do not line up perfecdy with religious voters on one side and anti-religious voters on the other. America ceases to be much of an America the day we arrive at something like Europe's old political divisions of Christian Democrats on one side and Socialists on die other.

Still, America's religious believers are not wrong to feel ringed in, somehow- teased and ragged and bullied and pressed in on. And they have responded, generally, like the bewildered boy surrounded by bullies. …

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