When the Little Sisters Succeed, Religious Freedom Succeeds

by Kathryn Jean Lopez

Speaking to congressional Democrats Friday morning, the president of the United States said that regardless of “who you love” you should be able to succeed in America.

He, of course, means to do what a Virginia court did Thursday: Make clear that in his mind anyone who does not embrace same-sex marriage is bigoted. (By that logic, he was bigoted not so long ago.)

Meanwhile, if you follow his words and consider his policies and our cultural and judicial realities, what he says simply is not true. If you believe the Gospel says certain things to men and women about how we are to live our lives, and that marriage is reserved for a man and a woman who make a sacramental commitment to one another in union with God and with openness to children and God’s will, in sacrifice, and service, and the fullness of love, then you cannot succeed in Obama’s vision of America. The Little Sisters of the Poor are in court because of this administration’s policy that says to them: In order to serve the elderly poor as you do, you must provide or steer employees of your nursing homes toward abortion-drug, contraception, and female-sterilization insurance coverage.

Do the Little Sisters of the Poor have the right to care for poor elderly men and women in good conscience? There should be a bipartisan answer to this question. Of course they do! And, yet, the Obama administration, in its narrowed view of religious liberty, insists the Obama way is the better way. This isn’t religious freedom. This is sexual-revolutionary values trumping religious freedom by regulatory edict. 

As Sister Constance Veit put it to me in an interview for National Review Online late last year:

Religious liberty is both the freedom to worship according to one’s faith and the ability to live and contribute to the common good in harmony with one’s religious beliefs. For the Little Sisters, this means being free to lead our religious life and pursue our mission of hospitality to the elderly poor in fidelity to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and the ideals of our religious congregation.

Part of the reason these religious-freedom cases are so hard to see clearly in the public square is because of the way we’ve treated religion over past decades. As I’ve said before here, it’s not a mere safe harbor in a storm or sentimentality or nostalgia. The Little Sisters aren’t merely nice people who like to be nice to others. The Little Sisters of the Poor serve the poor because they love God and they see God in those they serve. Their faith is who they are. This is real religion. And there are Mennonites and Evangelicals, Catholics and an ecumenical coalition fighting for the freedom to love God in America today.

And it is a good thing that there are people who freely choose to love God among us. They are a buttress for our civil society and democracy. We should feel free to say this even in our supposedly enlightened society that tolerates seemingly everything but this reality. As John Garvey, president of my alma mater, the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., has put it:

Our society won’t care about religious freedom if it doesn’t care about God. That’s where reform is needed. We won’t have – and we probably won’t need – religious exemptions for nurses, doctors, teachers, social workers if no one is practicing their religion. The best way to protect religious freedom might be to remind people that they should love God. This is, after all, why we have a first amendment. And why in better times we have not needed to rely on the Constitution at all, because we could depend on our elected representatives to respect our liberty.

The tragedy of Thomas More was that he had to die because he loved God. He could not be both a good subject and a faithful Catholic. Our tragedy is different, though it is no less about the protection of religious liberty. The mechanisms to preserve religious liberty only work when people care about their religion. Religious liberty will expand or contract accordingly. Saving religious liberty means reminding people that they should love God. Thomas More taught us that we need religious liberty. More importantly, he taught us that loving God is worth dying for. If that is so, then the freedom to love God is worth the fight. That’s the message we need to get across. 

In recent days, the president has pointed to other countries and insisted that we need religious liberty throughout the world. (This was the topic of my syndicated column this week.) But you don’t have much credibility if you don’t protect religious liberty here at home.

“When women succeed, America succeeds,” was another line from the president’s talk today to Democrats in Congress. The Little Sisters of the Poor are women, too. And, you, Mr. President, have picked an unnecessary fight with these women. It’s one they’re not going to surrender on because their victory has already been won, by their Savior, who does not hold elected office, but reigns eternally. 

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