As the U.S. bishops’ “Fortnight for Freedom” approaches the Fourth of July, there’s plenty of reason to celebrate the endurance of religious liberty in America. There’s also reason for heightened vigilance.
Vigorous debate and genuine airing of differences are critical to open societies. But today’s secularist attacks on Christians just for being Christians are something else. If anyone can be said to be on the receiving end of irrational animus these days, it isn’t activists who oppose the Church. It’s people sitting in the pews.
To say that today’s inquisitorial atmosphere towards Christians is reminiscent of a “witch hunt” is to speak figuratively, not literally, of course. Yet no wonder the metaphor comes to mind.
Long after the Puritans tried and condemned accused witches, only to repudiate the trials in hindsight, “witch hunting” has become figurative shorthand for collective outbreaks of unreason in which people are persecuted without proof for supposed transgressions. It’s a definition that rings uncannily true today.
Religious believers are often called “bigots” and “haters,” for example, and assigned other degrading epithets, just for believing traditional teachings about marriage. They’re said by secularists to menace other people in the public square, or on campuses, or elsewhere — even though it’s believers, not secularists, who have been on the losing end of struggles over the so-called social issues for decades now.
Religious expression is discouraged in the workplace and schools and elsewhere, often with a vehemence suggesting that it’s dangerous. After the shootings in Orlando, some antagonists of the Church even tried to blame Christians for the murders — when the shooter was, instead, manifestly not a Christian, and, indeed, an anti-Christian.
To attribute outsized, imaginary powers to one’s opponents is one more classic sign that what’s under way isn’t politics as usual, but an irrational fear of the other — in this case, the Christian.
Today’s “polite persecution” of Christianity in advanced societies, to invoke the phrase of Pope Francis, is also reminiscent of witch hunting in one other way. Proving that one is not a “bigot” or “hater” is like proving one isn’t a witch. In both cases, what’s required is a famously difficult logical task: proving a negative. “I am not a hater” is the equivalent of “I am not a witch.” It’s a rhetorical trap almost impossible to reframe.
So what’s a believer to do, faced with irrational secularist panic?
First, we need to recognize where the animus behind today’s hunt is coming from. The sexual revolution has given rise to something new in history: a secularist faith that sees itself as a rival to the traditional faith of Christianity. Contrary to the opinion of the new atheists, today’s antagonists of the faithful do indeed believe something. They are faithful to a well-developed quasi-religious system of their own, in which sexual liberty has been transvalued as the highest good.
The struggle between secularists and traditionalists isn’t one of faith vs. non-faith. It’s instead between competing faiths: one in the Judeo-Christian moral tradition and the other in the evolving secularist doctrine born of the sexual revolution.
Followers of the new secularist faith may not be conscious that it is a faith. But for religious believers seeking to understand what Christianity is now up against, it helps to know that today’s anti-Christians fight to defend an orthodoxy of their own.
Also, those who seek to engage the secular opposition might follow the example of Martin Luther King Jr. He succeeded by challenging his adversaries to live up to their own stated principles — and he did so patiently, respectfully and with civility.
Today’s believers might begin to rout the witch hunt in the same way: by holding secularists to their own purported standards of tolerance and diversity. Many people opposed to the Church believe themselves to stand for inclusivity and tolerance. The treatment of actual Christians by secularist inquisitors subverts that claim.
If “diversity” is truly prized, then traditional religious believers should be included at the public table, not ostracized. If “tolerance” is the goal, then the mocking and exiling of Christianity in Hollywood and on elite campuses and elsewhere should stop. To point out as much, respectfully, might be a modest first step toward more civility.
Lastly, it helps to remember that in pushing back against anti-Christian animus, believers are not only defending themselves. More important, we’re defending other people who depend on the Church — the needy, the destitute, the hungry; the victims of sex trafficking, the immigrants and all those imperiled by what Pope Francis calls a “throwaway culture.”
The human truth is that today’s anti-religious irrationalism undermines Christian efforts to feed the hungry and house the homeless. The syllogism here is simple: to undermine efforts to help the poor is to hurt the poor.
Lawsuits and other forms of secularist agitation against critical institutions, like Catholic hospitals and adoption agencies and crisis-pregnancy centers, are a net negative … for people in need. They siphon energy and resources away from the care of human beings, and into costly battles that help no one. Christians shouldn’t hesitate to confront aggressive secularism in the names of the poor and marginalized who depend on Christian charity.
That includes their brothers and sisters in the Middle East. As Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore observed a month before the fortnight began, “Without religious freedom, a merciless society emerges from the shadows.”
There is no equivalence between the mercilessness of hard persecution endured today by Christians in the Middle East, or by other martyrs past and to come, and the hounding of Western Christians in the public square. But ideologically driven attacks on American believers can’t help but jam the gears of humanitarianism, both inside the United States and out. The day that today’s secularist hunt on Christians subsides will be a better day, not only for religious liberty, but for the poor and persecuted, too. Either way, it will be cause for celebration.
Mary Eberstadt is the author of It’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its Enemies,
published by HarperCollins.