Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Saint Thomas Becket and Religious Liberty

On this Fifth Day of Christmas, the Church commemorates Saint Thomas Becket (1118-1170), Archbishop of Canterbury and medieval martyr.  Until 1960, the Breviary's second nocturn included the famous story of Becket's martyrdom in Canterbury's cathedral. It told how, when the priests tried to protect their Archbishop by barring the cathedral's door, Thomas opened it himself, saying, "The house of God may not be defended like a fortress. I gladly face death for the Church of God." In 1992, I was at Canterbury for this feast, where, after Evensong, the Archbishop of Canterbury led us in procession to the site of Becket's death, where an original account of the saint's martyrdom was read. 

Of course, the celebrant of that feast was Becket's successor but in an office and Church polity completely transformed less than four centuries after Becket's death by Henry VIII's Reformation. No wonder the Reformation removed Becket's feast from the calendar and destroyed his sumptuous shrine! Becket represented a pre-Reformation Catholic approach that envisaged a certain sort of partnership between Church and State. The Reformation successfully replaced that with the State in a clear position of dominance over the Church "by law established."

Nowadays, Becket is seen as a great defender of religious freedom. But 12th-century Europe and 21st-century America are very different in how they understand the relationships between religion and society and between Church and State. In any case, our contemporary American context requires us to understand how religious freedom is one constitutional guarantee among others and one occasionally in competition with other constitutional rights and social values.

Back when I was in graduate school, when we studied the U.S. Constitution, it was common to distinguish between 'successful" constitutional amendments and "unsuccessful" amendments. "Successful" amendments, it was usually argued, reflected an authentic consensus in American society. "Unsuccessful" amendments, although adopted and ratified, really lacked a complete consensus and thus failed. (One of them was eventually even repealed!)

Applying that framework to the 1st Amendment, it matters very much what kind of popular social consensus actually exists in regard to its provision that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. How broadly free exercise is interpreted and how highly it is valued  - especially in conflicts with other rights and other social values - will likely determine what that 1st Amendment will actually mean at any particular point in time. For example, in the famous conflict over polygamy, which led in effect to a persecution of the Mormon Church in the United States (until the Mormon Church gave in and changed its doctrine), society's valuation of monogamy clearly took precedence over both the letter and the spirit of the 1st Amendment. 

All this is relevant because we are seeing a certain shift in our society as religious liberty is increasingly seen as in conflict with other rights which society is increasingly disposed to defend. Those who purport to be defenders of religious liberty need to be aware of this and sensitive to it - and to examine their consciences carefully as to their actual motives when making religious liberty claims. When religious liberty is invoked in contexts where it seems to be opposed to the state's legitimate interest in protecting public health or where it seems to many to many to be more like a license to discriminate, it will have a much higher bar to meet to maintain popular support. If the contrary claims of other rights increasingly appear more plausible to more and more people, the long-term fundamental consensus on religious freedom, which is so essential, will be increasingly endangered.

Becket's challenge to today's Church is not primarily to carve out privileged statuses for religious entities, a strategy suitable for his era but obviously less so for ours. Today's challenge rather is to convince our culture of religious liberty's centrality for authentic human dignity and how it can be harmonized with strong and effective government and the recognized rights of others in our constitutional system

And, whatever else we do, let Becket's own words never be forgotten, "The house of God may not be defended like a fortress."

(Photo: Freedom of Worship, one of the series of four 1943 oil paintings by Norman Rockwell, reproduced that year in The Saturday Evening Post, depicting "the Four Freedoms," identified by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his January 1941 State of the Union Address.)

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