As the presidential campaign came to a close, religious questions sneaked surreptitiously into the national debate.  The Democrats had an easy target: Governor Romney’s unusual religious affiliation, though since few Democrats know anything about any religion, particularly Christianity, they found it difficult to distinguish Mormonism from other not-quite-so-strange semi-Christian sects.  Watching national commentators fumbling for words, I was reminded of the media reaction to Jimmy Carter’s declaration that he was a born-again Christian.  The national dailies and weeklies actually had to run major stories explaining what the phrase meant.

Some evangelicals responded by changing their position on the LDS.  The people who run Billy Graham’s website gave a good indication of their real priorities when they removed a page that placed Mormonism on a list of cults.  Like too many American believers, they are more Christianist than Christian—that is, they adhere to an ideology that equates the Christian Faith with a political agenda, in this case the GOP platform.  Democratic Christianists, by contrast, have made Marx the greatest doctor of their church.

Since the best defense is a good offense, Republican Christianists have gone on the attack, excoriating President Obama and his party for shifting the terms of the Church/state debate from advocacy of religious freedom to a defense of “freedom of worship,” a phrase that has been kicking around the dusty corridors of professional religiosity for some time.

Freedom of religion, as we have all heard in sermons and editorials, goes beyond the right to assemble and worship in the proverbial “church of your choice.”  Religious freedom is the right to live out the life prescribed by one’s religion: wearing religious garb and symbols, preaching the Faith in public, doing all such good works as the faithful have been instructed to walk in.  Freedom of worship, however, only covers what goes on within the walls of a church.  This very real shift is part of a larger transition of discourse about liberty.  U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently made it clear that freedom of expression is limited to speech and writing that does not offend ethnic and religious groups around the world.  The only exception, of course, is Christianity.

All human beings have the inalienable right to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly.  These are very fundamental rights.  But, at the same time, this freedom of expression should not be abused by individuals.  Freedom of expression should be and must be guaranteed and protected, when they are used for common justice, common purpose.  When some people use this freedom of expression to provoke or humiliate some others’ values and beliefs, then this cannot be protected in such a way.  So, my position is that freedom of expression, while it is a fundamental right and privilege, should not be abused by such people, by such a disgraceful and shameful act.

So it is the rulers of states and (in the secretary-general’s bizarre self-conceit) the world who get to decide what we are free to say and how we are free to worship.

It is easy to find the reactions of Christianists on the right and left, but rather than cite the usual stuff dished out by the Catholic bishops, look at this gem from the Deseret News—owned and controlled by the Latter-Day Saints organization:

But worshiping within a sanctuary constitutes just one facet of a living faith.  Religious institutions and believers realize their vocations most fully when engaged in ministering to the sick, caring for the poor, counseling the poor in spirit, educating the rising generation and promoting integrity in society.

This all sounds rather nice, but when Christianists try to turn religious freedom into an ultimate creed, they run afoul of religions that persecute other religions or engage in disagreeable acts.  Christianists then fall back on the position that freedom of religion is to be permitted except where exercise of that freedom conflicts with long-standing moral and legal traditions, such as prohibitions on murder, or even with more recent revelations on the rights of women, children, and brute beasts.

As an aside, let me point out the obvious flaw in every assertion of religious liberty as an absolute: None of the “great monotheisms,” when compared with Greco-Roman or Egyptian paganism, has much of a track record on tolerance and religious freedom.  The Romans, admittedly, cracked down on the Druids, both for human sacrifice and for their agitation against imperial government, and they sporadically persecuted Christians, mostly for their alleged misanthropy and lack of patriotism, but Greeks and Romans did not care what you believed, so long as you paid lip service to the religion of the city or of the empire.  Neopagans have a good argument when they complain that monotheistic religions—specifically Christianity, Judaism, and Islam—are more prone to persecute people for what they believe.

Religious freedom may well be the prudent thing for Christians of this age, but it was non-Christian liberals like Mr. Jefferson and not orthodox believers who promoted the idea of toleration of dissent.  “Error of opinion,” he intoned in his First Inaugural Address, “may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”  Note, by the way, that Jefferson used the word may as opposed to must.  He was not so foolish as to declare an absolute freedom of opinion and expression.

President Jefferson was, of course, speaking of political opinions, but he would have cheerfully applied the same rule to religion, if only because he was largely indifferent to all religions.  His family, friends, and neighbors were all—to one extent or another—Christians, mostly Anglicans, and he had no quarrel with a superstition (as he certainly regarded Trinitarian Christianity) that taught kindness, charity, thrift, and personal responsibility.  He had no wish to persecute any one Christian sect, because he preferred to ignore all of them.  When actual believers like John Milton or John Winthrop advocated tolerance, it was within the very strict limits defined by Lutheran and Calvin.  Christians tolerated; no Catholics need apply.

When liberal deists, agnostics, and atheists declare themselves in favor of religious freedom, there is no paradox or anomaly, because toleration of diversity is a liberal but not a Christian virtue.  As a postmodern man living in a post-Christian world, I freely acknowledge the practical advantages of religious freedom, but as a Christian I am not naive enough to believe that this doctrine was taught by Christ and His Apostles or by the great doctors of the Church.  Nor do we find it in the great reformers—Calvin was as enthusiastic a persecutor as Torquemada.  Freedom of religion is the creed of the anti-Christian liberal tradition that has always wanted to stick Christianity in a box that can be put safely away in some Lost Articles depot.  When they are more honest, anti-Christians speak openly of “freedom from religion,” which has always been the real meaning of the campaign for religious tolerance.

We can see, perhaps, the first glimmers in the calls for reform made initially by people like Arnold of Brescia and then by the German emperors who had very practical reasons for limiting the secular authority of the papacy.  We hear it more strongly in the Reformation, as sincere leaders of the revolt sought the support of cynical princes who were only too happy to dissolve monasteries, loot churches, and assume control over the social and moral questions the Church had been regulating since the time of Constantine.

These critics of the Church’s involvement in the world were sincere (though I believe misguided) Christians.  But even before the Reformation, the pagans had taken up the argument.  Lorenzo de’ Medici and his drinking and wenching buddies had strong objections to the Church’s moral authority that might poke its nose into their fornications and adulteries.  When Lorenzo was born, the bishop of Florence was Saint Antoninus, a holy and learned man who successfully defied Florence’s Podestà to defend a woman whose unscrupulous husband had repudiated her.  (The case is described in Gene Brucker’s fine little volume Giovanni and Lusanna.)  Though Lorenzo would repent on his deathbed, the Church would not again stand up to the increasingly degenerate Medici, who produced two appallingly bad popes.

The pagans and deists have gone from defending sexual license to attacking marriage, as the French Jacobins did, to overthrowing the papal estate, as the leaders of the Italian Risorgimento did, and finally to destroying the entire moral order—classical pagan as well as Christian—which is the object unceasingly pursued by the coalition of pornographers, feminists, and leftists who promote gay marriage.  They condemn the Boy Scouts of America for not permitting homosexuals to be Boy Scout leaders, but they now scream bloody murder when the Scouts are forced to reveal over a thousand cases of boy-molesting scoutmasters and volunteers.

While I do understand why Catholic bishops, evangelical leaders, and Mormons editorialists are agitating against the phrase “freedom of worship,” I hope these good men and women will pardon me for my demurral.  Their verbal nitpicking is a distinction without a difference, historically inaccurate, theologically indefensible, and fraught with future evil consequences.  The call for religious freedom has been, is now, and ever shall be the rallying cry of those who wish to destroy Christianity.  Like most so-called conservatives, these Christians have deceived themselves into thinking they are defending their religion, when they are really taking their stand with the anti-Christian rebels of the previous generation.  As time goes by, it will someday be apparent that Christian conservatives have been fighting the good fight for Antichrist, whose plot has always been to encourage us to have sympathy for the Devil.

To answer the inevitable question to be posed by a careless reader, “No, I am not advocating intolerance or persecution.  Far from it.”  In 17th-century England, many wise Christians grew tired not just of the battles between Puritans and Anglicans but of the incessant ranting of high-church zealots and ignorant fanatics.  Although I am no believer in an absolute religious freedom, I honor and respect the “men of latitude” who did not wish to persecute or kill Christians whose views they regarded as mistaken: Richard Baxter, a nonconformist willing to serve as chaplain to royal troops; John Bunyan,a Baptist unwilling to assign non-Baptists to the hotter parts of Hell; and Thomas Browne, whose Religio Medici is a delight for any sane Christian, if only because of Browne’s cadences.  As an Anglican, Browne took the dangerous step of attending Mass in Rome.  He responded to his critics in a passage worth quoting at some length:

At my devotion I love to use the civility of my knee, my hat, and hand, with all those outward and sensible motions which may express or promote my invisible devotion.  I should violate my own arm rather than a church; nor willingly deface the memory of saint or martyr.  At the sight of a cross or crucifix I can dispense with my hat, but scarce with the thought or memory of my Saviour.  I cannot laugh at, but rather pity, the fruitless journeys of pilgrims, nor contemn the miserable condition of friars; for, though misplaced in circumstances, there is something in it of devotion.  I could never hear the Ave Mary bell without an elevation; or think it a sufficient warrant, because they erred in one circumstance, for me to err in all, that is, in silence and dumb contempt: whilst therefore they directed their devotions to her, I offered mine to God, and rectified the errors of their prayers by rightly ordering mine own.  At a solemn procession I have wept abundantly, while my consorts, blind with opposition and prejudice, have fallen into an access of scorn and laughter.

Schism even more than heresy has ever been the curse on Christianity.  In every generation, someone rises up with a fresh idea, whether good or bad.  So long as he is willing to submit his idea to the judgment of authority—let us set aside who or what that authority is—time will ultimately winnow the wheat from the chaff.  I have had enough eccentric notions to start a hundred heresies, but I keep most of them to myself and confine the rest to private discussions with wiser heads than mine.

But there is always some impatient man of strong will who will not accept the verdict of authority and cannot wait for the judgment of future generations.  It makes no difference whether he is right or wrong, ultimately, because if he rises up to lead a schism, he shows his indifference to the damage he can do to the Body of Christ.  Both sides in a dispute among brethren—I do not now speak of those outside the Christian communion—should patiently await divine judgment.

Paul’s teacher Gamaliel, in telling the Jews to abide the test of time that will judge the teachings of Christ, had more wisdom than all the bigoted persecutors and headstrong schismatics combined.

Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought: But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God.