How Does Persecution Begin?

The history of the USA is rich in stories of people who fled countries where their faith made them targets. In some cases they were in danger because their neighbors persecuted and scorned them while a complicit government cruised with hands off. In other places, the government persecuted them directly. Many of these refugees have suffered horrors American citizens can only barely imagine. American citizens welcome people fleeing persecution and give thanks that in this country, we have a Constitutional amendment that protects us from such things.

The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America, which became part of the Constitution in 1791, reads as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.


It sounds quite straightforward. Congress may not make any law that prohibits the free exercise of religion.

Common sense has resulted in an understanding that if somebody’s religion called for child sacrifice, the nation would respond with outrage and certainly would prohibit a religion from engaging in that practice. It is interesting to me that this is a common example used to show that as a nation, our understanding of religious freedom balks at burning a child on an altar, precisely because the practice of abortion, and the related practices of contraception and sterilization, have become the elements of a prohibition of the free exercise of religion in this country. The Affordable Healthcare Act, conversationally known as Obamacare, has introduced something into our system of law that raises a bright red flag for anyone who pays attention to the history and daily news of religious persecution around the world.

This legislation requires every employer in the US to provide health insurance coverage for services the law classifies as “preventive” health services. The required services include contraception, abortion and sterilization at no cost to the employee. That is, the employee may not be required to pay the premium, and the employee may not be required to pay deductibles or copays for these services. For the employee, these services must be free. Further, the regulations built on this legislation allow a conscience exemption only for worship institutions whose religious theology prohibits engaging in or providing such services. Institutions such as hospitals, universities, counseling centers, and so forth are not exempted, regardless of the religious convictions of the employers. On February 10, 2012, President Obama announced what he called an “accommodation” in response to complaints by Catholic employers, a response that simply shifted the cost of providing such so-called “preventive” health services to the insurance company itself. Yet when the final rule was published on February 15, it appeared to be an unmodified publication of the initial rule. The Catholic Bishops and numerous other individuals and groups protested to no avail that this ruling was a breach of First Amendment protections.

Regardless of the ultimate outcome of this particular confrontational issue, it represents only the tip of the iceberg. Every Christian, and every person who lives by the principle that obedience to God trumps obedience to the State, must be concerned by this development. It is hard to imagine any prior administration daring to trample First Amendment rights this way. Catholic teaching for two thousand years has forbidden engaging in contraception, abortion or sterilization, and the government had to know this when the original rule was published. Yet the rule was published, the argument was argued, and in the end, unless some future court ruling changes things, the rule stands. The forcefulness of the government’s rejection of the issue of religious expression is startling, given our history. It may lie in the equally startling semantic corollary to this conversation. The advocates for this rule speak of pregnancy as a disease that must be prevented. Such a view of pregnancy is shocking by itself, but that view is required in order for the mind to accept the notion that contraception, abortion and sterilization are preventive health services, necessary, even essential to women’s health. In fact, the language being used has ramped up the concern about women’s health to such a level that many speakers talk about a universal human right to free contraception, abortion and sterilization.

The concise version of the story of the Affordable Healthcare Act and its mandate on employers to provide all women’s preventive health services at no cost to the employee is this: the State has a legitimate interest in assuring that women do not get pregnant by accident, and if an unplanned pregnancy should occur, it must be easy and cost-free to end that pregnancy. Notice how none of the verbiage uses the word “baby” or the word “child.” Yet the State is motivating women to practice contraception, abortion and sterilization without regard to the scientific truth that these procedures do, in fact, involve sacrificing a child on the altar of somebody’s convenience. In fact, the pressure exerted and the scorn poured out upon people of faith who object to this rule as a violation of their right to live their faith convictions makes it quite clear that the State’s convenience is at least as much at issue here as the convenience of women who don’t want babies.

The antagonists in this conflict are 1) the State (the United States of America personified by the President of the United States of America and the Congress of the United States of America), and 2) people who hold religious convictions prohibiting them from practicing or supporting the practices of contraception, abortion and sterilization. The State has by its actions asserted that to assert that God’s law has a higher claim to obedience than the law of the United States of America is not acceptable and will not be tolerated.

It is not farfetched to say that the State wants to be a god for whom citizens sacrifice children.

Historically, when the State requires any citizen to disobey God in order to obey the State, it signals the beginning of real persecution. The path from this moment of truth to some more gruesome evidence of persecution may be fairly lengthy, or it may be so short that we get there tomorrow. In many countries, the path for the State is smooth and unfettered, because many countries have no legal protection in place for Christians. In the US, there should at least be a fairly massive outcry against imprisoning or torturing Christians, but many more subtle and devious methods of persecution exist, and many are already in place in our culture.

This post is about an explosive and obvious moment when our country stood on a precipice and actually appeared to fall over the cliff. Perhaps rescue from this particular assault will appear from somewhere. Perhaps not. Christians cannot count on a drift away from the precipice. When someone with power exerts that power and subdues a powerful opponent, the high is like the first injection of heroin. The memory of that moment always calls out for repetition.

 Christians must be faithful in word and deed. We must speak out and stand up for the right to free expression of our faith. In the USA we have that privilege today. We must not let it dissolve before our eyes in a semantic cesspool.

2 thoughts on “How Does Persecution Begin?”

  1. Catholicism’s hierarchy is under siege, but it’s not the government that’s trying to storm the walls, its their own followers. The decades long cover up of priests’ atrocious pedophile acts in violation of their position of trust and leaders of faith. The financial penalties to the followers they damaged, have near bankrupted their institution. In response, rather than sell off the jewels of their real estate holdings, which are enjoyed by the hierarchy, and try to rebuild their flock with a plea for forgiveness and a new start, they instead close down the very churches, in which their remaining flock have seen their families baptized, christened, and buried. This is hallowed ground for these families, and for many over many generations. Is it any surprise the Catholic hierarchy feels persecuted?

    In “the tail wagging the dog” fashion, the catholic hierarchy is now calling the government the persecutors. By your own understanding of the facts the government is telling religions in general (and the Catholics feel particularly picked on as they’re the richest with most of the lay institutions for schools and hospitals) that if they have lay employees for lay institutions, that these employees are no different than employees for any other company, and they need to be provided with the benefits we’ve democratically passed into law. The government (or the people) are not telling churches what to do. No one wants to see that. What we’re saying is as churches grow into secular society with some of their institutions and hire lay people, they’re subject to society’s law. The Churches have my sympathy, as no one likes to do things we don’t want. But I pay war taxes, because I’m required to pay taxes. Plenty of business owners don’t think they should have to buy their employees health insurance, but by law (in MA where I live) they have to or pay the penalty. Forgive me, but do churches’ lay institutions with lay employees deserve somehow to be treated differently? I don’t think so. Is it my atheism that provides perspective, or do we all see this Catholic hierarchy play for what it is, an attempt to divert followers attention from the hierarchy’s own failings.

    I know you’re not a Catholic, so I applaud your solidarity with a kindred Christian organization; something that I’d like to see more of, as it would seem to be a good Christian thing to do. For my own part, I have much respect for Catholic charities and the worldwide world class organization they’ve been able to put together and administer. It’s certainly worthy of our donations.

    As a sometimes reader of your blog (you’re an excellent writer), I know you have some sympathy for the secular conspiracy theory that we secularists are out to persecute all churches (or so it would seem to go). I’m not sure I see this, but of course I’m on the other side. We have the gay marriage thing. We’re not saying gays should marry in your church. We’re trying to let them marry in society’s (non-religious) institutions, and let them enjoy the same rights as the rest of us. Your church can do what you want with gays. There’s the whole, let’s remove God from songs, wall hangings, etc. I must say, here, we secularist have been guilty of over reacting, over reaching. I for one see no problem respecting traditional use of religious icons in secular society. Of course if opens up secular society to remain fair, and to try to not to play favorites, but as long as we all agree we’ll evolve along these lines, let’s work together. I for one think it’s ridiculous to stop traditions like Christmas bake sales, or singing of Christmas carols. These things can be done in ways, without important sub-groups feeling persecuted, and all can have fun. Of course I’d like to remind religious persons that many references to God in our society come from the fear of Communists in the 50’s, and don’t go back to the founding fathers, like some seem to believe. Thomas Jefferson, like many other members of the enlightenment, didn’t really see God as anything but nature’s creator, and certainly didn’t buy into the mysticism of miracles or divine intervention. On the other hand, it seems, late in life, Ben Franklin, for one, did see our beating the world’s super power in a war as compelling proof of God’s intervention, (he also has a quote about God lovingly giving us wine).

    Instead of worrying about how secularists shouldn’t manage your religion, (and believe me, I don’t think we have any interest in doing this), I’d rather see you try to retain the religious icons and traditions you pretend to find so hallow. For example, what’s so religious about Santa Claus? Instead of worrying about whether secularists are saying happy holidays or merry Christmas, why don’t we worry about how Santa Claus has replaced Jesus as the center of Christmas? How about the pagan icons the Easter Bunny and eggs in our celebration of Christianity’s most holy day? Did the bunny or Jesus give us everlasting life, I can’t remember. It seems to me, you’ve found the enemy and it is yourselves.

    Last, i’d like to leave with a final thought. You’re quite careful in your writings to speak to what I perceive as followers of like mind. And then you’ll usually say, “and we should work to see that all can see as we do”. I applaud this style. I also applaud your consistent stand of respect for life, and have no problem with your trying to convince secular society of the wisdom of your beliefs/philosophy. What I don’t like is some religious leaders seem to see their flock as being of a single mind — theirs. It’s simply not true. You could poll a church’s flock and get a whole spectrum of opinions about all sorts of themes and issues. There would be no single voice. So let’s try to also remember this when we say that religious persons feel persecuted by secular society. I guess all don’t. And maybe we should remember it’s hard to generalize about any group, even secular ones.

    You’ve unfairly been the receiver of wrath from one who would be your so called persecutor. It’s with respect I submit a slightly nuanced but I fear none the less dissenting opinion to your own.


    1. You write with zeal and skill from a secular point of view, and I respect your right to your opinion.
      You make a good point about the Catholic hierarchy, its sins and its passions. However, the fact that the hierarchy sins no more changes the truths for which it stands than the lies of a given president invalidate our respect for the office he holds.
      As for me, I use the term “persecution” in its broadest meaning. Some people would use the term “restriction.” I choose the stronger term, because I observe that once restriction of any group of people is initiated, the restrictions inevitably increase. Compliance with each restriction is like the result of sanding a piece of teak wood. Once you have achieved the greatest smoothness possible with coarse grain paper, you are driven to remove ever finer rough spots, a goal that requires ever finer sandpaper. Law and enforcement form the sandpaper. People of the faith that creates the rough spot are the wood. If people submit to one restriction, it only exposes the issue that leads to the next restriction.
      I don’t believe I used the word “conspiracy.” I don’t see a conspiracy at work, but I do see a common mindset developing. When people start doing anything deliberately or by accident that “raise awareness” of an issue, people who might have sat silent or inactive are roused to do something. It is cultural momentum if you want to excise all the emotions involved.
      My intent is to raise the awareness of Christians to actions and words that diminish the rights of Christians and people of any faith whatsoever to express their faith in counter-cultural ways. I doubt that anybody cares if we go into our church buildings and close the doors and do whatever we like. I observe, however, that when we object to government enforcement of public behaviors we reject because of our faith, the public is outraged. There are undoubtedly some Christians who believe that the government should always enforce whatever we believe. I may wish it would, but I don’t see that it has that obligation. The government must serve all the people.
      Our government is unique, however, in that our Constitution defines a government that only has the powers ceded to it by the states and the people. Therefore, if the people hold on to a power, the government may not have it. That is the guiding principle of the Constitution. A fear that government would be tempted to assume powers that were not ceded to it led to the first ten amendments which actually define boundaries tfor the government which the original founders believed were impliciti in the fact that the Constitution did not give those powers to the federal government. The government was not “reined in” by those amendments, because the powers involved were never ceded to the government in the first place. The First Amendment prohibits the government from suppressing the free expression of faith, or to say it more specifically, the amendment is a reminder to the government that the people have never ceded to it the right to interfere with the free exercise of faith. I agree with Catholics that requiring any employer to fund health insurance services that conflict with the religious convictions of that employer, be the employer a university or a grocery store, be his faith Catholic or Hindu, is a breach of First Amendment protection.
      We won’t win every argument like this, and that will precipitate a variety of sorts of confrontations. As Christians, we aspire to follow Christ’s teaching to love our enemies and pray for our persecutors, but under no circumstance do we submit. This is why I write — to encourage the love at the same time I encourage the refusal to submit. We respond to restriction or outright persecution by loving our enemies and praying God’s forgiveness and blessing on those who light fires at the foot of the stakes to which they tie us.
      By the way, I completely agree with you about Christmas and Easter and so forth. I don’t have any objection to fantasy and gift-giving and parties and feasts. I don’t, however, confuse them with the celebration of my Christian holy days.


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