‘Here in the Old Hall, she casts an unlikely silhouette: unassuming in a lineup of proud stares, challenging us once more to look up and draw strength from stillness.”
Speaker of the House John Boehner was referring to the new statue of Rosa Parks in the U.S. Capitol building’s rotunda.
Parks, of course, was the civil-rights leader best known for refusing to sit at the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala. “When warned she would be arrested,” Boehner recalled, “Rosa Parks didn’t have to look far for courage. She didn’t have to look anywhere, really.” He quoted her to those gathered for the unveiling ceremony: “I felt a determination cover my body,” she said, “like a quilt on a winter night.”
The reason she knew what she needed to do — what she was called to do — was that she was rooted.
“As a child, Rosa Parks was shy, reserved — on the outside at least,” Boehner said. “On the inside, she was absorbing the gospel, listening closely to God, who was ‘everything to me,’ she once said.”
“Through every ordeal, she’d repeat some Scripture to herself,” he said. “From Corinthians, ‘We were all made to drink from one Spirit.’ From Luke, the parable of the persistent widow who prays and prays for an unjust judge until finally he sees the light,” Boehner continued.
“Humility isn’t incompatible with bravery,” Boehner reflected. “When we put God before ourselves . . . when we make ‘In God We Trust’ not just a motto, but a mission, as Rosa Parks did . . . any burden can be lifted,” he said.
The Speaker hit on something here. And it’s not about us.
Our republic, our culture, our lives, even, are not fundamentally about us, and our salvation is not about our activism or our agenda.
Boehner’s reflection on Parks is a timely one. It’s a necessary one.
In a speech on religious liberty last year, John Garvey, the president of the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., talked about a fundamental obstacle to some of our current attempts at conversation and debate involving policy in America. “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.”
“The mechanisms to preserve religious liberty only work when people care about their religion,” he continued. “Religious liberty will expand or contract accordingly. Saving religious liberty means reminding people that they should love God.”
We are already entering into another round of “war on women” campaigns that obscure fundamental policy questions involving, for one, the Department of Health and Human Services mandate for abortion-inducing drugs, contraception, and sterilization, which has brought over 100 plaintiffs to court seeking religious-liberty protection. Barack Obama’s White House, aided by a largely willing media, has benefitted from a policy of obfuscation and confusion. But it is best aided by something that it couldn’t have set in place and that the policy is born of: a cultural shift whereby we have become all too comfortable minimizing the role of faith in our lives.
This is where we are in America. We have privatized religion to such an extent that it has become sidelined; to suggest that we ought to be free to let it infuse life, in an integrated way, at work and at play, is an increasingly foreign proposition. We have been so overtaken by secularism and by arrogance laced with a hopelessness — by the belief that we really are the ones we have been waiting for — that we fail to see truly religious people as integral to a flourishing society.
Five years ago, William F. Buckley Jr., the founder of National Review and one of the great public intellectuals of the past century, died. He spoke of “What Americanism Seeks to Be” in a speech in 1979. He spoke of the totalitarianism of China and the Soviet Union. “In the Soviet Union,” he said,” “there is an infinitely long list of that which one is forbidden to do. In China, it works the other way. One may do nothing — except those things which one is explicitly permitted to do.” The American difference should be clear. “The Constitution of the United States, and in particular the Bill of Rights,” Bill said, is “essentially a list of prohibitions,” but “a list of things that the government cannot do to the people.”
“What a huge distinction: a majestic distinction. It grew out of a long, empirical journey, the eternal spark of which, of course, traces to Bethlehem,” he said, “to that star that magnified man beyond any power of the emperors and gold seekers and legions of soldiers and slaves: a star that implanted in each one of us that essence that separates us from the beasts, and tells us that . . . we were meant to be free. America cannot presume to offer itself up, in a frenzy of moral vanity, as the secular reflection of the Incarnation.”
In his last public Wednesday audience, Pope Benedict XVI, whose whole papacy and life have centered on the Incarnation, said, “Jesus is very clear that it is not worldly power that saves the world, but the power of the Cross, of humility and of love.”
It’s people aflame with that understanding, seeking to live in its reality, who see every man and woman as made in the image and likeness of God. The kind of people who are the ballasts of a flourishing civil society.
Our secular sequester hurts. Rosa Parks was not a savior, but a servant. All our impenetrable debates of the day might benefit from the humility on display at the front of the bus, and from a renewed acknowledgment and confidence in its Source.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online. This column is available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association. She is a director of Catholic Voices USA.