Article originally published November 14th by First Things. Republished with Permission.
By William Mumma
In Greek mythology, Sisyphus is a crafty and deceitful king, condemned by Zeus to roll a huge rock up a steep hill for eternity. Each time the rock nears the peak of the mountain, it rolls back down, crushing the king. Then he must begin again.
Sisyphus is crushed by each failure, both physically and psychologically. But his greatest agony is the anxiety he feels as he nears the top—he is so close, but he knows that failure is imminent.
For hundreds of years, the Left has pushed one utopian project after another up the hill: the French Revolution’s attack on the Catholic Church, the Communist war on both religion and property. The current attack is on sexual morality and the family. For decades, the Left has been winning this fight, but the nature of utopianism does not allow them to declare victory and disband. They have to keep pushing that rock up the hill.
We are nearing the peak of this particular cycle, with the Left’s push for transgenderism, the sexualization of children, and the total reduction to absurdity of the family. This push constitutes a great display of power—but also a great display of hysteria.
Take heart. They are most hysterical just before the fall.
Six years ago, the government commanded all organizations, regardless of religious conviction, to provide for abortion-inducing drugs in their health insurance. Immediately, leaders of Catholic institutions, such as Mike Warsaw at EWTN, Bill Thierfelder at Belmont Abbey College, and Jim Towey at Ave Maria University, asked Becket (of which I am president and board chairman) to represent them in the first lawsuits against the mandate. As months went by, dozens, then hundreds, of Catholic organizations either filed suit or prepared to. The Little Sisters of the Poor became the best known of these.
The mandate was a grievous assault on religious freedom. It was also an assault on the family and children. Becket included in its legal briefing a letter provided by one of the insurance companies. Here is the essence of that letter:
The insurer “will identify the female population ages 10 to 49” within the ministry and “will mail letters to all female members” offering them “the contraceptive coverage.” The insurer will continue to “monitor” the ministry “to account for any female members that become eligible (once age 10), and add them to the contraceptive line of business as appropriate.”
In other words, not only will the insurance company mail offers for contraceptives to your ten-year-old daughters, it will be watching your eight- and nine-year-olds to see when they are ready to receive the letter.
The mandate was a three-for-one special for the Left: It forced religious ministries to violate their faith, it bypassed parental control, and it encouraged sexual activity among young children.
We fought this mandate all the way to the Supreme Court, first for family-owned businesses in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, and then for religious ministries with the Little Sisters of the Poor. Two Supreme Court victories were the result.
Unfazed, the administration escalated its assault on religious freedom. (The rock must continue up the hill—or it has to come down.) In the fog of the election year, doctors were commanded to perform gender transition procedures on any child referred by a mental health professional. Doctors who refused for religious reasons—or out of concern for medical safety—could lose their jobs, and hospitals their licenses. Before this outrage could take effect, Becket won a nationwide injunction on behalf of the Franciscan Alliance and the Christian Medical & Dental Society.
These mandates are a clear expression of where the Left hopes to go. Their defeat is a sign that we are nearing the end of this cycle. As they push their agenda toward the peak, they have nowhere to go but down. That is why they are hysterical. They are particularly anxious that Trump’s election signals the end of this project.
The Left has reason to be fearful, at least in regard to religious liberty. In the last five years, Becket has gone to the Supreme Court six times and won six victories, many of them unanimous. We continue to win more than 90 percent of our precedent-setting cases in the Courts of Appeals.
We intend to win even more in the coming years. The Supreme Court victories that Becket and the Alliance Defending Freedom have won in recent years are powerful precedents. They provide a foundation for further litigation that will clarify and amplify the power of these decisions. The Left has used this dynamic for decades to create a negative spiral of court decisions. We are poised now to create a positive spiral.
An example is Becket’s victory this year in the Second Circuit, unanimously affirming the rights of Catholic schools in the New York Archdiocese to hire and fire their principals, free of government interference. This decision was a result of Becket’s 9-0 Supreme Court victory for Hosanna-Tabor in 2012.
The New York Times sounded the alarm about this legal dynamic when they wrote about the New York Archdiocese case. The Times lamented, “Newton’s law of motion in the legal context: A doctrine in motion will stay in motion unless met by an outside force.” The doctrines of religious liberty have been put in motion.
The signs are good on religious liberty: Precedents have been set, Becket and others are ready to fight, and we are looking at a judiciary increasingly committed to the Constitution. But the law in America rests on political forces—politicians make laws and appoint judges—and those forces rest, in turn, on social forces.
A review of social institutions in America will quickly deflate cheap optimism. The media, the entertainment industry, the universities, K-12 public education, and the major corporations all seem corrupted—unwilling or unable to defend religious freedom. If these are the foundation for the law, then my optimism is easy to dismiss.
I think of Shusako Endo’s novel Silence, set in the early 1600s in Japan. This was a time of extraordinary persecution of the Catholic Church. Having killed thousands of Christians and driven the Church underground, the feudal Japanese government is intent on exterminating the last remnants of the Church. The Shogun seeks to force the apostasy of two Portuguese Jesuits and the Japanese Christians who have hidden them.
The court officials do not just want the Church to go away. They want its priests and faithful to renounce the faith publicly. They do not want lawful obedience. They want absolute submission. So the Japanese Christians and the Jesuits are given a choice: gruesome torture, or the act of stepping on an icon of the church, a picture of the Blessed Mother or a crucifix.
The Christians are repeatedly assured that the step—the literal step—is inconsequential, a mere formality, a small price to pay for their freedom. As added incentive, the officials tell the faithful that if they refuse, their relatives and neighbors will also be tortured and murdered. The Christians must choose: a simple formality, or the torture and destruction of their entire community.
The Japanese peasants choose death. And this is not fiction. Tens of thousands of Japanese Christians were tortured and killed. History shows many went willingly to their martyrdom.
When I saw Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation of Silence, I thought of Becket’s clients, the Little Sisters of the Poor. At the heart of this casewas a simple decision confronting the Little Sisters. They could comply with the HHS mandate, or they could pay millions in fines and face the destruction of their mission in the United States, their communities of elderly poor.
Just as the Shogun gave those Japanese Christians a way out, our government told the Little Sisters that they merely needed to “sign a piece of paper,” and they would be free. Health and Human Services officials, the government’s lawyers in court, and the president himself told the Little Sisters that the paper was of no consequence, that it had no moral significance. The government told the Little Sisters that they were confused about their faith, that they were—and I quote what our government told the U.S. Supreme Court—“fighting an invisible dragon.” The Little Sisters would not submit.
Simple gestures mean a lot to people of faith. They mean a lot to those in power, too.
It was not just the Little Sisters who would not yield. The administration could have avoided this conflict. As the case proceeded, it was revealed that the administration had exempted secular employer plans covering 100 million Americans, for corporations like Visa, municipalities like New York City, and the United States Military. Exemptions for 100 million, but not for the Little Sisters. What reason did they have to crush the will of the Little Sisters of the Poor?
The officials of the Shogunate made it clear. There could only be one authority, and it must be the state. If the state is to be supreme, the Church must disappear.
The fight for religious liberty is not a sub-category of the electoral contest between Republicans and Democrats. It is a struggle over whether the state has the authority to banish the greatest rival to temporal power that exists. It is the age-old contest between the King and the Church, between Caesar and the Truth. It is a contest over who gets to decide: “What is truth?”
Christians like the Little Sisters of the Poor won this round of the fight. Are you tempted to say, “We won a battle but are losing the war”? Too often, Catholics lament the awful state of our society. They shouldn’t. This is not a new situation for Christians. The answer is always the same: Jesus Christ and his living body, the Catholic Church. This is the answer to despair, to pessimism.
The religious liberty fight has been blessed by courageous people who act like real disciples. The Little Sisters of the Poor are just one example. These disciples of Christ have been the secret weapon of the religious liberty fight. All the victories, all the momentum, is a result of their courage. That is why I know we are going to win this fight for religious liberty, and the broader fight as well.
The country has arrived at a tipping point. The people have rejected the lies offered by the dominant elite. Those elites are in a state of anxiety. They know their reign is coming to an end. It is up to us to seize this moment. The religious liberty fight is an encouraging example. We need to take this same zeal to every corner of our society, with the confidence—the trust—that people are hungry for the truth. The Church is once again bringing forth its harvest of witnesses and disciples.
God promised never to abandon us if we do not abandon him. As long as America continues to offer up witnesses, we can be confident that God’s promise will be kept. Let’s take heart and go out and make disciples of all men.
William Mumma is president and board chairman of Becket.
The views presented here do not necessarily reflect the views of Becket or its clients.
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