Dashed Hopes for Spring: The Chill of Religious Tyranny

By Jim Tonkowich Published on April 19, 2015

Here in Lander, Wyoming the weather Tuesday was in the seventies, breezy and brilliantly sunny. Wednesday brought the thirties, grey skies, and snow. Spring does not come to the mountains without multiple relapses into winter.

I’m here recording lectures for Wyoming Catholic College’s new Center for Distance Learning. In addition to directing the center, I’m co-teaching a course on the roots of American religious liberty with college president, Kevin Roberts. And just as the snow reminds me of the bad old days of winter, the lectures are a reminder of the bad old days when religious liberty — a rarity in the world even today — was no where to be found.

For most of history as in most places today, the government told people what they were permitted to believe. Religion was under state control. In the ancient world, when the music started, you bowed down to the king’s idol or else, as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednigo discovered (Daniel 3).

In the Roman Empire you could add gods to your personal favorites list, but offering a libation of wine or a pinch of incense to Jupiter, Minerva, “the divine Caesar” and the rest was non-negotiable. Refusal led to imprisonment, exile, torture, and even death. Many Christians died.

The Middle Ages saw the hegemony of the only Church in Western Europe. Heresy was tolerated, but only to a point. The Reformation permitted kings to turn the Church into a department of government and dissent into treason. And in the American colonies, the religious establishments in places such as Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Virginia brooked no rivals. And the atheistic totalitarians of the twentieth century — Soviet, Spanish, Mexican, Nazi, Chinese, North Korean — grabbed control of religion as a first priority.

With that in mind, we can see how radical are the words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This pledge on behalf of the federal government to stay out of the religion business was both an unheard of concession and a recognition of the pluralism that already existed in the young republic.

Not that the first amendment solved all church/state problems. There has never been a golden age of religious liberty. Our history if fraught with twists, turns and violations. Nonetheless, the genius of our system has, over the centuries, produced a spring thaw here and elsewhere across the globe.

Part of that thaw was the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which was (let us remind ourselves) introduced into the House by Congressman (now Senator) Charles Shumer (D-NY), passed the House and Senate by huge majorities, and signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton.

As a Family Research Counsel fact sheet accurately puts it, RFRA laws “give courts a tried-and-true balancing test for weighing a person’s sincerely held religious beliefs against legitimate state interests.” Most important, “RFRAs do not dictate outcomes.” Instead it gives everyone his or her day in court. An individual must prove a sincere religious belief that is being “substantially” burdened by the government and the government must prove a “compelling interest” that justifies the burden that must be the least restrictive way of pursuing the compelling interest.

RFRA is reasonable, fair, and has worked beautifully for twenty-three years at the federal and state levels.

Then suddenly the cold wintery blast of the bad old days blew into Indiana. Their RFRA law, we were told, dictated outcomes — horrible, dire, anti-gay outcomes. That wasn’t true, but the combination of left-wing intolerance, hysteria, hyperbole, and outright lies resulted in an amended law that, in fact, does dictate the outcome: sexual freedom always trumps religious freedom. That’s now the law in Indiana.

And why would we expect otherwise? In a culture that believes each individual gets to decide what is right and wrong, true and false, the notion that there is a divine Person somewhere wielding transcendent and final authority in all matters of faith and life seems more than just strange. It is outside the boundaries of possible belief and, thus, can only be a ploy to gain power over those we wish to control. It is in personal feelings that we trust, not in God.

And if you think it’s different in the Church, you haven’t been paying attention. Judgement, as St. Peter wrote, begins in the family of God (1Peter 4:17) and, indeed, it must. If we simply reflect the culture, we will be swamped.

Despite the snow outside, spring and summer will come to Wyoming. The icy blast of the assault against religious liberty, however, may be with us for quite a while.

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