As a cradle Catholic, I spent every Sunday morning in church, every Wednesday night in Faith Formation Classes and then as I got older, every Sunday night in youth group. My faith was a part of my everyday life, and just as my brain does not have to remind my body to breath, I never once considered that practicing my faith was a privilege. To myself, and to many in my hometown, Sundays were dedicated to church services and family time, and it was not uncommon to see every church parking lot filled between the hours of eight in the morning until late in the afternoon.
Religion and Politics
It was not until I began my freshman year of college that I learned what it meant to truly take my faith into my own hands. My mother was amazing, and she raised me in the Catholic faith as she promised at my Baptism, and it is because of her example of God’s love that I am where I am today. In college, I recognized that not everyone chooses to take hold of their faith and make it their own. For me, college was a time when I realized that my faith is, in fact, a part of my everyday life and that I wanted it to be a part of my studies and future career, not just when I am sitting in church during mass, or in a Bible Study. As a political science major I was not sure how I would align my love for my faith with my studies, and I had no idea what type of career I wanted, however, my freshman year, a class was offered called, “Religion and Politics” and it was in this class that I fell in love with the interplay between the two and formed a passion for religious freedom.
In my high school history classes, we learned a lot about the history of different groups around the world. We talked about the Protestant Reformation, the Crusades, the Reconquista of Spain and other periods of history when people were attacked for their faith, no matter their religion. However, prior to college I never would have believed that the attacks I read about in my history classes from hundreds of years ago could manifest themselves in other ways in the United States today, because based on everything I had been taught previously, the United States was “home of the free because of the brave.”
The First Amendment of the Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, nor prohibit the free exercise thereof.” The Founding Fathers established the United States following the American Revolution in a time when many of those living in the Colonies had escaped religious persecution in Western Europe. Therefore, the protection of people’s individual right to practice the religion they desire was at the forefront of the Founders’ minds as well as the prevention of the new government endorsing one religion over another.
Attacks On Religious Freedom
However, the First Amendment to the Constitution has also served in recent years as the primary defense for many as to why attacks on religious freedom are unheard of in the United States. This is simply not true. Many discuss the phrase “separation of church and state” as being a reason as to why religion should not be found within the public sphere. Those who argue that it is unconstitutional to have a prayer at high school football games, or a Ten Commandments monument outside of a government office building, use this phrase as their defense. However, the origin of this phrase comes from a letter, written by Thomas Jefferson, to a congregation of Danbury Baptists in 1802. In context, the phrase was used by Jefferson to assure the Danbury Baptists that no central government formed by the new Congress, would impede their rights to worship freely. It was not meant to force religion to stay within the privacy of one’s home; it merely assured them that they would be able to practice whichever religion they wanted, or none at all.
In our increasingly secular society, the rights and faith of Christians are, in fact, facing tremendous opposition. As moral relativism and secularism reach deeper and deeper into our society, religion is being forced further out of the public sphere, forced to remain in one’s private home and thoughts. When the Founders wrote the Constitution they pulled various ideas from different European political philosophers. Among these was John Locke who advocated in England for the rights of life, liberty, and property. In the United States, it was phrased in the Declaration of Independence to say “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” To many, America is the “land of opportunity” and a place where everyone has equal rights. For those who live primarily within in the secular world, the United States is seen as a free society because as citizens we have a large amount of autonomy in what we wish to do, as compared to other countries.
Freedom in our secular world is different than the freedom we have through Christ. To the secular world, freedom is the ability to choose what one wants to do, to have the free will to choose one path over another. It is the freedom to worship on Sundays, or not to worship on Sundays. Nowadays it is the freedom to choose which restroom one wants to use based on their gender identity.
As Catholics, we believe that God gave us free will. He gave us the ability to choose between right and wrong, good and evil in order for us to freely choose to love Him. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “God willed that man should be ‘left in the hand of his own counsel,’ so that he might of his own accord seek his Creator and freely attain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him” (CCC 1730). In the Church, “freedom is the power, rooted in reason and will, to act or not to act, to do this or that, and so to perform deliberate actions on one’s own responsibility…Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude” (CCC 1731). It is through our consistent choice to do good that we ultimately become free. As we choose between good and evil, a choice pertaining to the good, grants us true freedom, while a choice towards evil, enslaves us to sin.
Two Notions of Freedom
These two notions of freedom are very different and it is this misunderstanding of true freedom that has to lead to many of our issues today. In regards to society, the Catechism states, “The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in moral and religious matters, is an inalienable requirement of the dignity if the human person” (CCC 1738). Just like the Founding Fathers, the Church holds that the freedom to practice religion is an inalienable right that must be protected. The Church calls each of us to be involved in our societies, to serve those around us, and therefore, as practicing Catholics we must be involved in politics. We are not supposed to stand back and keep our religion out of our public lives; rather, we must be the hands and feet of Christ to all we meet.
Fear of Offending Others
As our society becomes more secular many of us as Catholics and Christians do not want to speak up out of fear of offending others. However, if we are to be truly free we must align ourselves with what is good and just, and in order to do that, we must continue to practice our faith in every aspect of our lives. We must stand up for our rights as Catholics and Christians to be able to freely promote our beliefs. In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus says that we will be persecuted for our belief in Him and His teachings, but that does not mean that we should stand back while our religious liberty within the United States stands to be threatened.
Christ did not call us to be passive but to be active, and we must fight for our freedom to worship in our churches on Sundays without fear, to continue to speak our thoughts against our secular culture despite the backlash. We must align ourselves with what is true and justice so that we all are able to achieve true freedom, not just in the United States, but true freedom within our hearts as they align with God