Discussing the constitutionality of Obamacare’s “preventive health” measures on MSNBC, Melinda Henneberger of the Washington Post told Chris Matthews that she reasons thus with her liberal friends: “Maybe the Founders were wrong to guarantee free exercise of religion in the First Amendment, but they did.”
Maybe. A lot of other constitutional types in the Western world have grown increasingly comfortable with circumscribing religious liberty. In 2002, the Swedish constitution was amended to criminalize criticism of homosexuality. “Disrespect” of the differently orientated became punishable by up to two years in jail, and “especially offensive” disrespect by up to four years. Shortly thereafter, Pastor Ake Green preached a sermon referencing the more robust verses of scripture, and was convicted of “hate crimes” for doing so.
Conversely, the 1937 Irish Constitution recognized “the special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church as the guardian of the Faith.” But times change. In 2003, the Vatican issued a ruminative document on homosexual unions. The Irish Council for Civil Liberties warned Catholic bishops that merely distributing the statement could lead to prosecution under the 1989 Incitement to Hatred Act, and six months in the slammer.
In Canada, Hugh Owens took out an advertisement in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, and he and the paper wound up getting fined $9,000 for “exposing homosexuals to hatred or ridicule.” Here is the entire text of the offending advertisement:
Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13
I Corinthians 6:9
That’s it. Mr. Owens cited chapter and verse — and nothing but. Yet it was enough for the Saskatchewan “Human Rights” Tribunal. The newspaper accepted the fine; Mr. Owens appealed. That was in 1997. In 2002, the Court of Queen’s Bench upheld the conviction. Mr. Owens appealed again. In 2006, the Court of Appeal reversed the decision. This time the “Human Rights” Commission appealed. The supreme court of Canada heard the case last autumn, and will issue its judgment sometime this year — or a decade and a half after Mr. Owens’s original conviction. It doesn’t really matter which way their Lordships rule. If you were to attempt to place the same advertisement with the Star-Phoenix or any other Canadian paper today, they would all politely decline. So, in practical terms, the “Human Rights” Tribunal has achieved its goal: It has successfully shriveled the public space for religious expression — and, ultimately, for “exercise of religion.”
In the modern era, America has been different. It is the last religious nation in the Western world, the last in which a majority of the population are (kinda) practicing believers and (sorta) regular attenders of church. The “free exercise” — or free market — enabled religion to thrive. Elsewhere, the established church, whether de jure (the Church of England, the Church of Denmark) or de facto (as in Catholic Italy and Spain), did for religion what the state monopoly did for the British car industry. As the Episcopal and Congregational churches degenerated into a bunch of mushy doubt-ridden wimps, Americans went elsewhere. As the Lutheran Church of Sweden underwent similar institutional decay, Swedes gave up on God entirely.
Nevertheless, this distinction shouldn’t obscure an important truth — that, in America as in Europe, the mainstream churches were cheerleaders for the rise of their usurper: the Church of Big Government. Instead of the Old World’s state church or the New World’s separation of church and state, most of the West now believes in the state as church — an all-powerful deity who provides day-care for your babies and takes your aged parents off your hands. America’s Catholic hierarchy, in particular, colluded in the redefinition of the tiresome individual obligation to Christian charity as the painless universal guarantee of state welfare. Barack Obama himself provided the neatest distillation of this convenient transformation when he declared, in a TV infomercial a few days before his election, that his “fundamental belief” was that “I am my brother’s keeper.”