"Our Country!
In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right;
but right or wrong, our country!"

    --Commodore Stephen Decatur

Monday, October 17, 2011

Render unto Caesar

As Americans, we hold religious freedom and the freedom of conscience as the most essential of all rights. The First Amendment protects the freedoms of speech, assembly, press, and protest all in their own right, but at their heart these rights all depend on the basic right of belief. At Mass this past Sunday, the Gospel reading centered on Jesus' command to the Pharisees and the Herodians to, "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's." Almost two thousand years later, this is an important insight into the debate over separation of church and state in our country.

Whether by requiring taxpayer funded abortions in the healthcare law and by executive order, allowing military chaplains to perform same-sex marriages, or by providing taxpayer funding to openly political groups like Planned Parenthood, the Obama Administration has waged an all-out assault on traditional Christian--and especially Catholic--belief. Indeed, while many of President Obama's initiatives have met with failure, his attack on religious freedom has been devastatingly successful.

Meanwhile, the persecution of Christians by liberals has reached a new low as the Occupy Wall Street protests have spread to Europe with a new decidedly anti-Christian twist. Whether in the Soviet Union, Castro's Cuba, or the anarchist protests of our day, left-wing politicians have always been hostile to religion. Obama appears to be no different. Although nominally a Christian, he has nevertheless provided encouragement, if not an outright endorsement, to the Occupiers' reign of terror.

Even for non-Christians and non-believers, the lesson of history is clear. When a democracy is intolerant of different views, disaster and tragedy soon follows. In one especially vivid example, Ken Burns' recent documentary demonstrates that the deadly consequences of prohibition were in large part fueled by religious persecution. When a minority is persecuted, it is never long before the majority begins to suffer as well. As our laws encroach more and more into the private sphere of our daily lives, the danger only increases.

In all this, we can look to the example of Thomas More who was forced to choose between allegiance to his king and to his faith. When King Henry VIII made it a crime to deny his supremacy as the head of the Church of England, Thomas More stood fast to his faith as a Catholic. Throughout his life, More was obsessed with the meaning of virtue. In his study of theology, philosophy, and the law, he came to believe that above all, virtue cannot exist without integrity. In the end, he chose to die rather than sacrifice his integrity.

Whether Christian or not, pro-life or pro-choice, pro-gay marriage or not, we have a duty as Americans to be tolerant of the views of others, but it does not mean we should accept the views of those with whom we disagree. Although it is inevitable that the government will do things that are objectionable--even to a majority of the people--it is also imperative that the government does not violate the essential freedom of belief. It is one thing to pay taxes for dubious government projects, but it is quite another when the government uses tax dollars to persecute those who pay the bill.

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