Among famous last words, Sir Thomas More’s give Catholics the best advice for this year’s ugly and acrimonious political campaigns. As he was walking up the scaffold to his execution, the former Chancellor to Henry VIII summed up his predicament—and his choices—eloquently. “I die the King’s good servant,” he said, “but God’s first.”
To be in this world and not of it has never been easy. And, there are times in history when to maintain one’s hope for citizenship in the Eternal City of God has required faithful disciples of Jesus Christ to stand firmly in opposition to those who wield power in the temporal cities of men and women. Many martyrdoms have been the result, including More’s.
But if we think that this cannot possibly happen in our days, we ought to remind ourselves of the fact that the Bill of Rights we enjoy under the United States Constitution was not just the result of winning the war we call the American Revolution. It was the fruit of a revolution in thinking, and the articulation of a new understanding of the dignity of the human person that flourished in the new world.
Our first amendment freedoms, the freedom of religion and the freedom of speech, are under assault. Despite the distasteful and even detestable behaviors of both major party presidential candidates, we would be wrong to tell ourselves that the freedoms we have enjoyed for just short of 230 years can’t be lost. They can be. But I think the most frightening thing about that possibility isn’t that it would happen in an open cataclysmic battle. More likely, it would occur after a long, steady erosion of our common understanding of what these rights mean. That can be accomplished by the sly use of words in which the principles that define us as a nation are redefined simply by rephrasing them.
Notice that what we Americans cherish as “freedom of religion” is now more often than not being referred to as “freedom of worship.” These two concepts are simply not the same thing. Freedom of religion encompasses each individual citizen’s right to fully practice his or her faith and live according to its principles. The separation of Church and state so many tout also guarantees the right of organized religions to govern themselves, as well as define and teach what they hold as beliefs. Freedom of worship is limited to praying as one wishes, not publicly, but within the confines of a private setting. It is an impoverished substitute none of us should be willing to accept.
Similarly, “freedom of speech” has been recently reduced to “freedom of thought.” In other words, while we are free to hold an opinion or set of beliefs, we may not be free to express them publicly. Strangely, a society that prizes tolerance as its highest virtue seems unable—or more likely, unwilling—to tolerate the free expression of views that it finds disagreeable. The right to disagree, and the civility to do it respectfully, is being undermined everywhere.
What’s a Christian citizen to do? Follow Jesus’ instructions to the Pharisees. “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and render unto God that which is God’s” (Matthew 22:21). Pay your taxes, obey the laws, and defend your country. But when it comes to casting a ballot or taking full advantage of the Bill of Rights, give God what belongs to him, even if doing so incurs the wrath of Caesar. Be a good servant to your country, but be God’s servant first.
Jaymie Stuart Wolfe, © 2016