Politics & Policy

Freedom Gets a Hearing

What Pope Francis has in common with the evangelical Greens and the Mennonite Hahns

Outside the Supreme Court last Tuesday, a late-March snow fell as activists talked, held banners, and prayed about women and health care and religious freedom. Inside the hallowed halls, Mars and Venus were said to collide, as the media would report on women justices coming to the supposed rescue of women who work for employers who have religious objections to the Obama administration’s abortion-drug, contraception, and sterilization mandate.

#ad#It’s a regulation that was crafted by abortion activists — board members of Planned Parenthood and the organization formerly known as the National Abortion Rights Action League. It never went to Congress for a vote. At most turns the White House has tried to dismiss concerns. The media barely covered the existence of lawsuits until President Obama was safely reelected. And those who oppose the regulation are not attempting to limit access to any of these drugs or procedures. Rather, they seek to protect the religious freedom of those — including religious sisters who serve the elderly poor — who can’t in good conscience participate.

As the snow piled up on the benches outside the Court, David and Barbara Green walked down the steps after oral arguments. The Greens are the evangelical family that runs the Hobby Lobby arts-and-crafts chain. “Our family started Hobby Lobby built on our faith and together as a family,” Mrs. Green explained in a statement. “We’ve kept that tradition for more than 40 years, and we want to continue to live out our faith in the way we do business.”

“The choice that the government has forced on us is out of step with the history of our great nation founded on religious freedom,” she said. “We believe that no American should lose their religious freedom just because they open a family business.”

Similarly, another plaintiff, Anthony Hahn, a Mennonite and the CEO of Conestoga Wood, a cabinet-making company in Pennsylvania, explained why he was in the last place he had ever expected to find himself — in front of cameras at the Supreme Court. As Hahn spoke, his wife, Carolyn, beamed with thanksgiving. The Hahns and the Greens know what a gift religious liberty is, and they won’t give it up without a fight.

Much of the media covered the story with some ridicule and disbelief. The Obama Department of Justice argues that people give up their religious-liberty rights when they go into business. Given the fact that many of us are willing to relegate religion to Sunday worship or consolation in difficult times, it’s understandable how this has traction.

When Pope Francis met with President Obama later in the week, a little bit of a media miracle happened when religious freedom did, in fact, make its way into media reports. The White House had hoped to benefit from papal popularity and distract attention from the Court challenge. The pope welcomed the president, and did so as the holy father he is. He’s a head of state, yes, but, more importantly a pastor and shepherd. And whatever the White House’s goals for the meeting were, the president seemed to acknowledge this as he asked the pope for prayers for his family. Although the White House tried to reclaim the narrative after a Vatican report from the meeting mentioned discussion of human dignity and religious freedom, we know this was a topic. The president, after downplaying any disagreements he might have with the pope and the Catholic Church (never mind evangelicals and Mennonites!), explained: “I don’t think that His Holiness envisions entering into a partnership or a coalition with any political figure on any issue. His job is a little more elevated. We’re down on the ground dealing with the often profane, and he is dealing with higher powers.”

As Lauren Green would point out on a panel we were on later in the day on Fox News, how would Obama describe what John Paul II was doing with Ronald Reagan during the Cold War? And Obama’s comment misses the point of the pope’s pleading about indifference and mercy. The “often profane” can be sanctified; we can be redeemed. We have purpose greater than winning the day in the news or holding onto the Senate in November.

The invitation that Pope Francis issues is to a Trinitarian reality where we know we are loved by God, the Creator of the world, that we have a Savior who won victory over death, and that we have a counselor in the Holy Spirit. We are treasured and never alone. If you believe this, it’s hard to live life superficially. It’s hard not to be transformed.

Before the pope met the president, the papal tweet of the day was about conversion. At their meeting, Pope Francis gave the president a copy of his apostolic exhortation on “The Joy of the Gospel.” In it he quotes his predecessor, Benedict XVI, on “the gray pragmatism of the daily life of the Church, in which all appears to proceed normally, while in reality faith is wearing down and degenerating into small-mindedness.”

The Greens and the Hahns do not isolate their business lives from their spiritual lives, from their family lives. They seek to live life authentically, as integrated people of faith, and they seek to make it possible for their employees to do the same, if they so choose. This is some of what Pope Francis and Pope Benedict are getting at. So many people of faith live lives of practical atheism, in which we privatize our faith and do not overwhelm those around us with Christian hope and love and joy.

Ultimately, some commentators wrote up the meeting as an exchange of ideas about income inequality in which maybe contraception was mentioned. That’s missing the story. But they are free to do that. On the other side, the Greens and the Hahns and a man who lives life in the Holy Spirit may not fully have our attention, but we’re free to listen in and join them in their exercise of and defense of freedom.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and founding director of Catholic Voices USA. This column is based on one available exclusively through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.



Kathryn Jean Lopez — Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and an editor-at-large of National Review. Sign up for her weekly NRI newsletter here. This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.