St. John the Baptist and Religious Freedom

Today is the Feast of St. John the Baptist, otherwise known as the Jesus’ cousin and the man who baptized Jesus in the Jordan. Today is also the first Sunday of ‘Fortnight for Freedom‘, the two week period of prayer, study, catechesis and action regarding the threats to religious freedom. How fitting that the Feast of St. John the Baptist would be celebrated during this Fortnight as St. John the Baptist epitomized the importance of religious freedom and what can happen when an all too powerful government dictates what may and may not be acceptable in terms of religious expression.

St. John the Baptist was first described to us when Mary first goes to visit her cousin, Elizabeth, upon courageously and obediently saying ‘yes’ to the Angel Gabriel when he tells her that she has been chosen by God to bear His son. In Luke, we are told

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.

The baby to which the passage refers is Elizabeth’s son, John. We learn from various writings that John was a bold man who preached the truth. He lived as a hermit in the desert and was known to be somewhat eccentric. Some time around his thirtieth birthday, he began to preach fervently about the importance of penance and baptism for the forgiveness of sin – even baptizing Jesus. His following grew and grew and was a great threat to Herod Antipas. John was never one to shy away from truth and honesty – and never one to be quiet about sharing this in a very public way. As such, John spoke openly against the adulterous and incestuous marriage of Herod to Herodias, the wife of Herod’s half brother Philip. Herod had John arrested and imprisoned for speaking out against him. John’s life ended at the wish of Herodias’ daughter, Salome, who requested his head be served on a platter to her mother.

While the conditions of St. John the Baptist’s death differ from the threats to religious liberty we face today, there are similarities that can be drawn here in the US and along the lines of what Christians around the world – particularly in the Middle East – face as a result of publicly expressing religion. St. John the Baptist told the truth about Herod and Herodias. Herod didn’t arrest St. John the Baptist only because of what he said, he did so because Herod was a threat to his power and St. John the Baptist had an ever-growing ministry of followers who turned toward truth and honesty and disavowed corruption.

The recent HHS Mandate in the United States which requires that individuals, companies, hospitals – and everyone other than a Church – pay for and provide health insurance plans that cover the free distribution of contraception, as well as include coverage for sterilization and abortion inducing drugs. The only organizations exempt from this mandate are organizations that serve ONLY people of their own religion. The US Council of Catholic Bishops noted that even Jesus wouldn’t qualify for exemption under the requirements as outlined by the Department of Health and Human Services.

As a result of this mandate, 43 different religious organizations have filed suit against the Department of Health and Human Services (ironically, headed up by a professed pro-abortion Catholic, Kathleen Sebelius). Many believe the lawsuits are about contraception – but they aren’t. The lawsuits seek to argue that the Department of HHS steps beyond the bounds of the US Constitution by declaring the definition of ‘religious expression’. The US Constitution States:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof

The First Amendment declares is that a) Congress may not establish a religion (keep in mind what had been happening in England at the time the colonists left to settle the United States) and, equally important, b) that Congress may not prohibit the free exercise of religion. The second part of the statement is extremely broad and what the current lawsuits are using as a basis to fight the Obama Administration and the Department of HHS. Perhaps the best example describing this violation is Marc Barnes’ description he provided here:

The free exercise of religion is violated both by what you take away from a religion, and by what you force a religion to do. If members of a religion are forced by the government to perform actions contrary to their beliefs, they are no more free than dogs.

The second part of his first sentence is key – you violate the free exercise of religion not only by what you take away but always what you FORCE THEM TO DO. In this case, religious freedom is being violated by forcing individuals and organizations to pay for and offer products and services (purchased from a private entity!) against which they have a moral obligation.

Thankfully, we have a court system in the United States against which we can file a grievance and hopefully resolve the issue in a peaceful manner. Following the news in the Middle East and Northern Africa, one can see that we are truly blessed to live in a civil democracy in which religious freedom is, for the most part, respected. We must pray during this Fortnight for Freedom that we continue to be blessed with religious freedom and that our brothers and sisters here in the US understand the importance of awareness and action in keeping our religious freedom safe. We must also pray for the expansion of religious freedom to those Christians currently persecuted and dying as a result of the expression of their religion.

We can all benefit from taking a moment to asking St. John the Baptist to intercede on our behalf for an expansion of religious freedom around the world, as well as a strengthening of religious freedom here in the US. After all, St. John the Baptist knew first hand what happens when the government is free to dictate the definition of freedom of expression.

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