The notion that religious freedom is under siege isn't just an American preoccupation. Some Christian leaders in Britain also have sounded the alarm, prompting a pointed rejoinder from the former spiritual leader of the Church of England that also should be required reading for paranoid American religious conservatives.
Rowan Williams, who retired as Archbishop of Canterbury last year to return to academic life, said, “I am always very uneasy when people sometimes in this country or the United States talk about persecution of Christians, or rather, believers.”
Christians in Britain and the United States may fairly complain about being ridiculed, Williams acknowledged. But he contrasted that experience with the “murderous hostility” faced by Christians in other parts of the world.
“I think we are made to feel uncomfortable at times. We're made to feel as if we're idiots -- perish the thought! But that kind of level of not being taken very seriously or being made fun of; I mean for goodness sake, grow up.”
To be fair, the U.S. Catholic bishops and others who have raised alarms about threats to religious freedom don't talk only about rhetorical slights. For example, the bishops argue that when the government or the courts legalize same-sex civil marriage, “conflict results on a massive scale between the law and religious institutions and families.... Religious liberty is then threatened.” Really?
Legalization of same-sex marriage does create complications for churches that oppose homosexuality. For example, they might find themselves denied participation in government social programs that treat same-sex and opposite-sex couples the same. But that is hardly “conflict on a massive scale.” No one is going to force the Roman Catholic Church or any denomination to perform same-sex religious marriages. Nor is it likely that the church will lose its tax-exempt status because it opposes gay marriage (or contraception or female priests, for that matter).
Even when they don’t use the word “persecution,” some Christians use apocalyptic language to describe the supposed threat to religious liberty. In 2009, a group of Christian leaders, invoking the example of Martin Luther King Jr., reminded fellow believers that “Christianity has taught that civil disobedience is not only permitted but sometimes required,” and suggested that lawbreaking in a higher cause might be necessary because of legal abortion and gay rights.
“Because we honor justice and the common good,” they declared, “we will not comply with any edict that purports to compel our institutions to participate in abortions, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide and euthanasia, or any other anti-life act; nor will we bend to any rule purporting to force us to bless immoral sexual partnerships, treat them as marriages or the equivalent, or refrain from proclaiming the truth, as we know it, about morality and immorality.... We will fully and ungrudgingly render to Caesar what is Caesar's. But under no circumstances will we render to Caesar what is God's.”
Reading that, one might think religious leaders were in danger of being thrown to the lions for preaching against same-sex marriage or abortion. In fact, the alleged encroachments on religious freedom are pretty marginal -- for example, the Obama administration’s requirement that contraceptive coverage be included in insurance plans for employees of religious colleges and hospitals (but not actual churches). And even that minimal intrusion is being challenged under a federal law known as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which allows believers in some cases to opt out of generally applicable laws for religious reasons. Caesar wasn’t so tolerant.
American Christians who cry wolf about religious persecution, to the point of threatening civil disobedience, are trivializing an evil that is all too real in other parts of the world. In Williams’ pithy phrase, they should grow up.