In a bow to my paleo-hippie past, I went to the rally for Religious Freedom in Atlanta.
I noticed a few things right off. First, neither a whiff of pot on the air nor an overhanging smell of tear-gas, something I recall with a certain clarity from my protesting days in college. And the crowd was polite, well dressed and full of children, the little ones darting in an out of the forest of legs. And we started and ended with prayer, for ourselves for each other and for the people who are visiting such injury on us.
And we sang—but not protest songs. First, the national anthem—never did that in my college days. Then Amazing Grace—a reminder in Lent of our own brokenness and need for redemption. At the end, God Bless America.
Something we really need to do because the turnout for the rally I attended was respectable but not impressive, especially for a town where 30,000 people regularly turn out--and spend big bucks to do so-- to do something as ultimately unimportant watch sports and cheer on their favorite team. It was especially disappointing in a place in which the Catholic faithful are growing in numbers at an astonishing rate. We filled the courthouse steps and a bit of the street, but we were small enough to be ignored. From the rhetoric it was clear that we are engaged in a battle for religious rights the like of which this country has never seen—the likes of which no one thought we’d ever see. But our numbers tell another story—too many of us, Catholic or not—are not taking this seriously enough to disrupt our lives to do something visible, vocal and obvious about it. It is no particular help if we have great numbers on our side if those in power don’t know that. As it stands they are ignorant—willfully or just blindly—of just how many Americans stand against the HHS mandate. It’s our job to show them, for if the constitutional imperative of our position is not enough to sway them (and to date, it has not been), the numbers just might.
And if we don’t, the coming repression of religious faith in the public square—of all faiths, not just of Catholics—will disrupt all of our lives and the lives of generations to follow.
Over and over again we were urged to prayer in the rally, and that is good. Prayer is always the first step but it’s not the last, for prayer, in addition to raising our concerns to the God who already knows them, is a vehicle by which He prepares us and goads us into our own action. Prayer, in all its power, changes us as much as it changes others.
If we are to prevail on this matter, if we are to engage the sympathetic but apathetic, we must be both visible and vocal in our presence as well as our prayers. And we must persistent in complaining in such a way that the powers that be cannot mistake us or distort our message. The parable of the persistent widow and the corrupt judge is meant to remind us to be faithful in prayer to the just, Heavenly Judge—but it’s important to remember the widow’s noisy persistence had a certain salutary effect on the earthly powers, too.
So here’s my rally wish list for remaining visible and vocal:
(1) Prayers of the faithful. Until the matter is resolved, I’d love to hear included in the weekly prayers of the faithful a specific petition for support of the Bishops as they continue in this fight, something more than the general petition for bishops and public officials that we already say. I’ve made it my practice to raise it myself in daily mass, when vocal petitions are encouraged. If this is to be a matter of continual and particular prayer, what better place to model that than in worship?
(2) Weekly bulletin updates. Scarcely a day goes by without something happening in this fight. Dedicating a portion of the bulletin to updates will remind the faithful that the problem hasn’t gone away. And while we are at it, ask our non-Catholic brethren to do the same—both in prayer and in presence in the bulletin.
(3) Encourage Religious Liberty Committees in every parish to keep abreast of events and pass information along by e-mail, bulletin inserts and, when needed, telephone tree. Even an interested person can miss important news—I only found out about the Atlanta rally two days before. I was fortunate to be able to take a day off on short notice, but the people I asked to join me could not. This is too important not to take a belt-and-suspenders approach to keeping the faithful informed.
(4) Signs of the times. As I drove home from the rally, I saw signs for various political candidates in many of the yards. A few years ago, in my own little community there was a battle of the signs with respect to a proposed change in local laws. The signs kept the issue alive in our minds and sparked comment, commentary and discussion. No one in that town went to the polls uninformed that year. Isn’t there a philanthropist somewhere willing to jump-start a sign program? Failing that---an old bedsheet and spray paint like we used to use for homecoming? I saw plenty of those hung from windows in Maine in the run-up to the Super Bowl, proving once again that sports is the religion that unites American life. If we can hang a sheet from our window to support the New England Patriots, why not to support the New Religious ones?
(5) Letter writing—not just to politicians, but to the local newspapers. Most papers have a rule against publishing too many letters from a single source in a short period of time. But regular letters on a subject, even if not published, might raise awareness that there IS a significant resistance to this mandate and that it remains an important issue.
(6) Awareness ribbons, lapel pins and bumper-stickers. When I was a protesting college student, I went to class every day with a black armband on to protest the war in Vietnam. Tying on a a shred of black cloth was easy, cheap, easily identifiable and visible; I literally wore my opinion on my sleeve. Like the road signs, it stimulated conversations. Not all of them were pleasant and some of them were more heat than light—but at least I was talking to people who disagreed with me—giving me a change to make my point—and on those occasions when my temper did not get the better of me—opening the door to discovery of common ground. I suggest a tasteful black ribbon (for the death of conscience) or lapel pins—there are a number of great designs like the one below at St. Peter’s List where you can indicate your interest in buttons, t-shirts and the like. Perhaps another budding entrepreneur can come up with something equally eloquent--and FAST!
(7) Visible solidarity with others of like mind and continuing public presence. One of my favorite movies when I was a kid was The Day the Earth Stood Still. The alien in the movie arranged for everything run by electricity to stop for an hour on one particular day as a warning to mankind against the dangers of war. I’ve no illusions that we can bring the world to a stop like that but imagine how powerful the witness would be if at noon every Friday from now until the mandate is rescinded, every person of conscience would stop what he is doing, step outside, bow his head and pray, quietly but vocally a prayer of his own choice, the quietly go back to his work.
The song Alice’s Restaurant was popular during my college days. At the end of it, Arlo Guthrie spins a tale of what might happen if one person went into the Army Recruiter, sang a bar of Alice’s restaurant, and walked out. In the language of the day, he points out that one person doing that might be thought crazy, a couple might be thought odd and dangerous, but if enough people participate, it’s a movement—and people pay attention to movements.
We have our consciences. We had our rallies. We have our websites and our champions and our spokesmen. We have our cause and know our battle plan. We have our patrons (St. Thomas More, St. Edmond Campion and Blessed Mary Ball leap to mind—all martyrs to a religious persecution that came out of the same system of laws as our own).
By the looks of the rallies yesterday, we have a movement. Let’s now badger the living daylights out of the administration on the matter of this most unjust of mandates.