Thirty-some years ago, I spent a fair amount of time on religious freedom issues: which meant, in those simpler days, trying to pry Lithuanian priests and nuns out of Perm Camp 36 and other gulag islands. Had you told me in 1982 that one of my "clients," the Jesuit Sigitas Tamkevicius, would be archbishop of Kaunas in a free Lithuania in 2012, I would have thought you a bit optimistic. If you had also told me, back then, that there would eventually be serious religious freedom problems in the United States, I would have thought you a bit mad.
But you would have been right on both counts.
To be sure, Americans of conviction and conscience are not under the same threats that made a martyr of Shahbaz Bhatti in Pakistan a year ago. American believers in biblical religion and its moral teachings do not face the relentless pressure visited upon Chinese Christians who refuse to concede that the Church is a subdivision of the state. But religious freedom is, nonetheless, under assault in these United States. The assault is both cultural and legal. It is shameful that the present administration underwrites the former while being a major actor in the latter.
I try to unravel some of the cultural aspects of the problem--the attempt to erect an empty "shrine" at the heart of western democracy--in the spring 2012 issue of National Affairs, in an article whose title is taken from the Book of Daniel: "The Handwriting on the Wall." (The article is available online, after March 21, at www.nationalaffairs.com.)
As for the administration's legal assault on religious freedom, consider the following:
1) The recent HHS mandate--which requires that all employers (including religious institutions with moral objections and private-sector employers with religiously-informed moral objections) facilitate the provision of contraceptives, sterilizations, and abortifacient drugs like Plan B and Ella to their employees--is an effort to bend religious convictions to the government's will. Under the mandate, the federal government will impose its understanding of "preventive health care" on all of American society. And if that tramples the right of religious freedom enshrined in the First Amendment and the provisions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, then too bad--or, as the administration seems to believe, all the better. The administration is likely to lose this battle, legally, but the underlying intent to erode religious freedom is all too clear.