Here in the Deep South, one doesn’t encounter too many people who totally eschew religion, not too many who think religion should be a totally private matter. After all, one of the first questions asked of a stranger, right after where he’s from, is where (not if) he goes to church. If that doesn’t produce a positive answer, the next statement is likely to be an invitation to attend the questioner’s own “church home.” Ecumenical discussions of faith occur even in the workplace: my husband was surprised and delighted to find that lively talks even occur in the doctor’s lounge of the local hospital.
People wear their faith openly, and it tends to inform everything they do. I tell my friends the story of a neighbor who was having a particularly trying day, and, frustrated and angry, said something about it to the woman checking her out at Wal-Mart. The patron in line behind her put a reassuring hand on her arm and asked if she could pray for her—and did, right then and there with the checker joining in. We may debate the particulars of our beliefs here, and we can be vigorous (even ugly) about it, but there’s not much doubt faith is meant to be taken into the broader world.
All this by way of explaining why I am baffled at those who not only expect faith to remain a “private” matter, but who are determined that extinguishing religion, particularly Christianity, altogether, can only better mankind. More particularly, I am amazed, in a country that was founded precisely so that individuals could bring their religious beliefs into practice, that the exercise of faith is so fundamentally threatened. The current culture wars are drawing battle lines for Christians, and especially for Catholics. Exercising our faith now carries no small risk of martyrdom.
Not the physical kind, at least, not here in the United States, not yet. I don’t fear losing my life for my beliefs, so it remains a theoretical possibility I am happy to consign to some nebulous future. Losing my money because of my Catholic faith—that’s another story. It looms as an ever increasing possibility, and it frightens me. I am afraid my faith isn’t strong enough to stand up to the storms that are gathering. I pray that it will.
Consider the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA). If the conscience clause that permits health care workers to refuse to perform, participate in or refer for abortions is eliminated, there’s a real moral question of how Catholics will continue their long history of health care, for the clause affects more than just those involved in primary care of women’s health. Medical schools and nursing schools may well require abortion training as part of the curriculum—how will Catholic students deal with that? How will Catholic Bishops? How will the Catholic faithful?
And it won’t take FOCA to bring this about. There have already been lawsuits in America against physicians who refused to refer for abortion, and pharmacists who refuse to carry contraceptives. The issue isn’t access to care—there are uncounted physicians and pharmacies ready to step into the breach caused by one provider’s conscience. The issue is conformity with the secular world’s view of life, which when you get right down to it, is really a view of death. Do it my way, the culture says, or I will see to it that you die a miserable social and economic death.
This social and economic martyrdom is no theoretical issue. In Canada and in Europe, speaking up for the Church’s position on marriage and homosexual behavior can incur a massive fine under “hate speech” codes. In the United States, refusing to provide services to anyone on the basis of conscience risks a lawsuit and economic damages—as a wedding photographer discovered when he declined to photograph a same-sex “marriage.” Churches that speak out on political issues with religious implications can risk loss of their tax exempt status—something brought clearly into focus in the last election. Even Miss California lost her chance at the Miss USA title for standing up for traditional marriage, and is being savaged in the media for her stupidity and bigotry.
The older I get, the more I realize that Satan will tempt me to abandon my faith at my weakest point, in my need for comfort, and rarely in great, sweeping ways. The path away from faith is taken in small steps. If I am quiet in the face of a social discussion about how wonderful it is that two young people have decided at long last to live together without benefit of matrimony, if I remain on the board of an organization that does great good but also supports embryonic research and gay unions, if I participate in a comprehensive charity drive that supports Planned Parenthood and shuns the Boy Scouts because my company wants 100% participation, my silence allows the particular deceit of the Father of Lies to take stronger root.
And the Father of Lies is smart. He knows that I enjoy my comfortable life. He knows that I am called on not only to be true to my faith, but also to be wise and clever in the exercise of it, not seeking punishment for its own sake but accepting it willingly if it comes. That loophole gives me a great deal of room, too much, I fear, because it makes it too easy for me to put off my witness to another place another time. What, exactly, am I supposed to render to God when there’s also the admonition to render to Caesar?
I don’t know where the lines are, but I know that they are important. The martyrdom I risk is more subtle and perhaps in some ways harder for comfortable, modern man to embrace. I risk being ostracized, fined, sued, arrested, embarrassed, and losing my livelihood. The thought of losing my profession and my hard earned retirement is harder to deal with than the thought of losing my life precisely because it is so immediate and the consequences are so real and lasting—and because I have a choice that seems so easy. After all, I am asked only to shade the edges of my beliefs, to keep silent, not to deny Christ Himself—right? Wrong.
As a disciple, I am called to carry my cross just as Jesus did. In theory, I’ve already admitted to the possibility that I am willing to die for Him. I wonder whether I will be willing to be bankrupted for Him when the time comes?