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Ancient Rome was not exactly a haven of religious freedom, particularly for a new sect called Christianity. Writing at the end of the second century, Christian apologist Tertullian summed up the situation:
They think the Christians the cause of every public disaster, of every affliction with which the people are visited. If the Tiber rises as high as the city walls, if the Nile does not send its waters up over the fields, if the heavens give no rain, if there is an earthquake, if there is famine or pestilence, straightaway the cry is, “Away with the Christians to the lions!”
To be sure, today’s America is no ancient Rome, and opponents of American Christianity are no toga-draped, lion-feeding emperors. Blessed with a unique heritage of religious freedom, Americans—Christian or otherwise—have very little to complain about compared to the treatment religious minorities faced in ancient Rome, and still face in many other parts of the world.
But it doesn’t take an historian to notice that knee-jerk hostility toward religion in general, and Christianity in particular, is alive and well among some of the nation’s top influencers.
Consider a recent piece at The New Yorker by CNN senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin entitled, “Despite the Coronavirus Pandemic, the Government Is Still Targeting L.G.B.T.Q. Rights.” If that headline’s assertion strikes you as far-fetched, the article’s itself will both confirm your suspicions and thoroughly confuse you on the facts of every case and issue he mentions.
“‘Religious freedom,’ in its current incarnation, has little to do with religion or freedom,” Toobin contends. “Rather, it’s a payoff to a privileged political constituency, usually at the expense of others.”
While Toobin couches his argument in criticism of the Trump administration’s vigorous commitment to religious liberty, it’s painfully obvious that Toobin’s real objection is to the idea that Americans should be allowed to live and work according to their beliefs. That much is clear from Toobin’s complaint that “religious groups want special privileges”—which he curiously went on to illustrate by referring to Mississippi drive-in churchgoers fined $500 for sitting in their cars in the church parking lot even though the exact same activity was legal at a Sonic restaurant a few blocks down the street.
In this case, which Alliance Defending Freedom attorneys fought and won, as in so many others, mayors and governors have clearly overstepped their authority and violated the First Amendment in the process. The government cannot treat religious groups including churches worse than secular groups—that’s not “special privileges”; it’s constitutionally guaranteed freedom.
Toobin also complains about a Department of Labor rule from last August—one of several strange choices in a piece trying to tie in with a pandemic that started several months later— protecting faith-based organizations like adoption and foster care providers from government punishment simply for operating according to their faith.
That’s not a hypothetical scenario. It’s one the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to consider in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, where the city abruptly cut Catholic Social Services from its program just days after putting out an urgent call for 300 more foster homes in March 2018. Further, this came a year after Catholic Social Services successfully placed 226 children in foster homes. Why was Catholic Social Services targeted? Because Philadelphia disagrees with the Catholic Church’s marriage view.
And Philadelphia isn’t the only government entity that has cut ties with these vital lifelines. Similar discrimination against faith-based providers has gone on in Michigan and New York state as well—even while more than 400,000 children in the foster system are waiting for homes.
Unfortunately, Toobin is far from alone in his misguided attempt to use the COVID-19 crisis to lash out at ideological opponents. At a time where cooperation and unity at both at a premium, writers at The New York Times, The Washington Post, and elsewhere have gone out of their way to smear Christians.
Worst of all has been the current criticism of Christian humanitarian group Samaritan’s Purse, which is being harassed even as it provides life-saving medical services for New Yorkers in its Central Park field hospital at the height of the pandemic. As with all of its relief projects in the United States and around the globe, Samaritan’s Purse serves all people, no questions asked, and at no charge to either the hospitals it works with or the patients it serves.
But that did not deter some activists from attacking the ministry. One leader at the discredited Southern Poverty Law Center called for the field hospital to be expelled. And a New York lawmaker went so far so as to say it’s “a shame that the federal government has left us in the position of having to accept charity from such bigots.” All because Samaritan’s Purse hires people who share the same faith and mission.
If ever there was a time to call a ceasefire to the much-derided “culture wars,” it would be now. But Toobin and others looking to score political points won’t have it. To them, a crisis is just another opportunity to sow division.
Scapegoating, bullying, and vilifying those with whom we disagree has always been a surefire way to destroy a culture. Tertullian’s contemporaries failed to learn that lesson. Rome’s best days were behind her, and her fall was just around the corner.
Let’s hope we learn our lesson and choose unity over division before it’s too late.Published in