Many people today on the political right claim that religious liberty is under attack because the nation expects them to follow the law. Of course, there has been a struggle for many centuries as to whether the laws propounded by religions are superior to those of secular governments. All of us have studied this in school in our courses on world history and US history.
Today some people assert that many of the colonists came here seeking freedom from persecution in Europe, which is correct, and that today’s religious people are under the same threats to their beliefs, which is incorrect. Indeed, never emphasized in school and omitted from today’s discussions of American religious freedom and the First Amendment is just who it was who was persecuting those who sought religious freedom in colonial America.
The Puritans who came to Massachusetts, the Catholics who founded Maryland, the Quakers who created Pennsylvania, the Huguenots, and many others who fled Europe were fleeing persecution by Christians. Furthermore, many of the Christians who came to America fleeing persecution by Christians tried to establish theocracies themselves, where they persecuted Christians.
The Puritans expelled Christians of the wrong flavor who settled among them, and killed those who refused to go. In Maryland, Puritans, bringing the English wars of religion to America, overthrew the Catholic colonial government for a time and repealed that colony’s Religious Toleration Acts. They then banned Catholics from public office and drove many into exile (in Virginia and Pennsylvania). The Quakers fled England where they were persecuted for their beliefs. There are more examples.
Christians do not have a tradition or heritage of acceptance of other Christians who interpret their ancient teachings in one way or another. From the earliest times, Christians have argued among themselves about correct beliefs, and they have taken the persecution of heretics as a major and necessary task. For twenty centuries, Christian belief has joined with state power to enforce, by violence, proper thought. Accordingly, heretics, not thought of as people with different opinions but as evil people, deserve extreme deadly punishment.
In the United States, there is a long tradition of anti-Catholicism that derives from our mother country’s anti-papism. Thus we have the Know Nothing Party’s anti-Catholicism before the Civil War, and the KKK’s anti-Catholicism, which along with white supremacy and anti-Semitism were key planks in that Protestant organization’s platform. The violent and bloody abuse of Mormons by the majority Protestants drove them to flee west into the wilderness in the 1850s.
While most American Christians today recognize that freedom of belief for themselves must include the same freedom for everyone else, a significant and influential group of Christians seeks freedom for themselves but not for others.
The Catholic Church asserts its right to disobey our laws of which it does not approve. There is a movement in both the Catholic Church and some Protestant churches to have the government grant them the right to ignore our laws by the mere assertion that God does not approve of those laws. Two examples of this are the Supreme Court’s bizarre Hobby Lobby decision involving contraception coverage in health insurance and the demand of Kim Davis to not do her job.
Interestingly, Davis claims to have had a secret meeting with Pope Francis during his recent visit. Through her lawyers, she says that he encouraged her in her resistance to American courts and the Constitution. The Vatican has refused to confirm or to deny that such a meeting took place. According to Davis, the Pope encouraged her and told her to “stay strong.” This is quoted in Salon.com.
In that Salon account, and elsewhere, the Pope is quoted as follows:
ABC News’ Terry Moran asked the pope if people should disobey the law in the name of religious liberty — an obvious allusion to the Davis case — and he replied that “I can’t have in mind all the cases that can exist about conscientious objection, but, yes, I can say that conscientious objection is a right that is a part of every human right. It is a right. And if a person does not allow others to be a conscientious objector, he denies a right.”
My comment about this remark by the Pope is that he asserts that people should have the right to conscientious objection to secular law and in this case democratically enacted law, but he definitely does not believe that people should have the right to conscientious objection to religious law. Really to Catholic law. If a Catholic priest asserted his right to conscientious objection before he married his sweetheart would the Pope hesitate for a moment before defrocking him? In fact, if the Church today had the state power it once had, worse would be done to that priest.