As all hell broke loose just before Easter in and around Indiana, it quickly became clear that we have almost entirely lost the ability to talk about religious freedom. The very phrase means different things to different people, caught up in all kinds of ideological frames. To the people behind the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, it means the ability to conduct their lives in accordance with their beliefs. To others, it is simply a code phrase for bigotry. Meanwhile, the word “tolerance” is bandied about by people who are insisting on adherence to a new secular intolerance. As we headed into Holy Week, Indiana was going nowhere good in a hurry.
A presidential candidate who wants to be a real leader could help change that.
We live at a time, Pope Francis has pointed out, when there are at least as many martyrs as there were in the early Church, in the days of Nero. This isn’t an academic debate, nor is it just another polarized issue rapidly approaching intractability. And even as we’ve been touched by the testimonies of the families of Coptic martyrs, their plight still may seem a world away. So let’s get to know them. Going over to the Middle East with a true listening spirit, a presidential candidate could lead the way in making the introductions. The crop of 2016 hopefuls should all give it a go.
The effort would serve multiple purposes. Going over there and actually meeting persecuted Christians — getting to know and understand something about their lives and their needs, making some relationships — could be of benefit for both national-security and humanitarian reasons.
And it might even have political benefits. Andrew Doran, co-founder of In Defense of Christians, who has done more than his fair share of interacting with persecuted Christians, says: “The issue of Middle East Christians is increasingly on the mind of the American people. They don’t quite know how to wrap their heads around it because the Middle East is complicated. However, this much is simple: America ought to stand with those who share its values. America invariably goes wrong by placing too much trust in faux allies, such as the Morsi regime or the Maliki government or ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels or the Gulf Arabs. The politician who takes this simple message to the American people — to stand with moderates and minorities — will have popular support.”
Robert A. Destro, professor of law at the Catholic University of America and the founder of an interdisciplinary program in law and religion, says: “Such a visit would also highlight the important role the Kurds and Jordanians are playing in the region. The sad truth,” explains Destro, who is no stranger to the region, “is that the United States has no strategy: everything we do over there . . . is a reflection of domestic politics, not strategic thinking about what’s in the best interests of the United States and of the long-suffering people of the region.”
“Religious freedom is a sacred space that must be protected in the name of civilization,” Congressman Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska tells me. He is co-chair of the Caucus on Religious Minorities in the Middle East in the House of Representatives. “Middle Eastern Christianity has been a leavening influence and has provided multiple civil-society benefits to Muslims, including schools and hospitals.” He adds: “Military might cannot ultimately win, but the demand for human dignity can.”
Those words, too, are loaded ones today. “Human dignity.” It should be the ultimate banner we could unite behind. But these words, too, have given way to ideology here at home.
Pope Francis, in talking about today’s Christian martyrs, has said: “Even those Christians who are forced away in an ‘elegant’ way, with ‘white gloves’: that too is persecution.” The martyrs and the displaced, the Christians today who know they may die simply for being Christian, don’t have the luxury of misusing and abusing language. They can teach us a thing or two about integrity.
And they can show us why it’s crucial that they remain where they are, in the birthplace of Christianity. As Destro points out, “Americans don’t know much about their Christian brothers and sisters over there. Nor do they understand that our Assyrian and Chaldean Christians (Orthodox and Uniate) were evangelized by St. Thomas on his way to India.”
He adds that a high-profile trip to the Middle East would be “a bonanza for the humanitarian agencies like Catholic Relief Services and World Vision.” The media would have a news hook for providing a snapshot of who’s doing what there, with their audiences for once feeling less powerless through knowing whom they can support, who is helping people there. For anyone seeking to be president, such a trip could demonstrate some mature leadership. Even more importantly, it would also be the decent thing to do.
“Religious freedom isn’t just for Christians,” Destro emphasizes, and everyone else I talk with who has a hand in helping Christians remain in the region agrees. As we focus attention here, that’s a fundamental thing to realize. Everyone benefits from protecting human dignity.
Speaking at a “religious freedom summit” that New York’s Cardinal Dolan held just before Easter in the studios of Sirius XM on Sixth Avenue, an imam suggested that Muslims take a lead from Catholics and others who have worked through faithful citizenship, integrating their faith in a pluralistic society. Truth be told, Christians in the West have miles to go yet in walking the Way we just marked during Holy Week, but they are needed to walk that walk in humility. The love of God and of other people — seeing Him in them, in loving service to an eternal strategy — makes a difference.
And today, when, not all that far from where Christ was crucified, martyrs are facing similar fates for following Him, we can all learn a thing or two about just how precious religious freedom is to communities and to civilization.
So: Do you want to be president of the United States? Start planning your trip to meet the persecuted.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, 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.