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Five hundred years ago, an upright Englishman, loyal and fair, set his quill to parchment and bequeathed an intriguing idea to princes, politicians, and peasants alike. It was in 1516, the year before Martin Luther famously protested, that Sir Thomas More – faithful husband and father, wise lawyer and chancellor, and Roman Catholic saint – published his treatise Utopia. Now a utopia, as you might know, is an imaginary perfect society where everyone is happy, where all laws are just and abided by, and where bureaucratic rigmarole bows down to common sense. If only.

More’s notion that such societies could actually exist need not ruffle our feathers for now. While he was locked away for treason in the foreboding Tower of London, the British saint probably had much time to think about heaven – a perfect society according to most theistic religions. Catholics believe that More, beheaded by the crown in 1535 after notably refusing to pat Henry VIII on the back for his second marriage, now enjoys this unending bliss whose earthly archetype he attempted to sketch so long ago.

Two Principles of More’s Religious Theory

What interests us at present is More’s theory about religious freedom. Perhaps not a relevant issue today, you might think. Most societies today, it is said, respect man’s fundamental right to choose his own religion and live out the ethical tenets contained therein. In More’s world, the citizens of Utopia are in fact allowed to choose whichever religion they so please, but they must adhere to two basic principles: that the human soul is immortal, and that God governs history through Divine Providence.

The immortality of the soul must be admitted, says More, because if there were no eternal consequences for human action, nothing would prevent us from proclaiming universal anarchy, seizing private property, or stealing jelly doughnuts from our favorite bakery. (Perhaps it wouldn’t be too terrible, after all.) Actions have consequences, says St. Thomas, and if you are a good fellow in this life, you’ll be rewarded hereafter; if not, you’re out of luck.

The Divine Providence principle highlights the fact that life on earth has an ultimate purpose – that we are meant to be eventually united to our Creator in the joyful halls of paradise. Why else would God be a part of history? Without Divine Providence as a guiding principle, man would easily despair at the atrocities and injustice rampant everywhere and thus fail to improve his woeful surroundings. God’s no clockmaker – He’s alive and active, and He wants us to know it.

The two clean principles born from the pen of an Englishman, respected on Utopia island, struggle to receive the same adulation today. More’s take on religious freedom could do us some good in the 21st century. Let me explain.

The Holiday Conundrum

You don’t have to read far to discover a growing movement among colleges and public institutions in the U.S. and Europe in which once-traditional religious holidays are either being renamed with secular titles (“Winter break” instead of “Christmas”), or simply erased altogether from the calendar (so as not to offend non-adherents). On the other end of the spectrum, some school districts want to add holidays for religions not yet represented, like in New York City, where all students now have two extra days off to commemorate Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, both Muslim celebrations.

Other government bodies say you can’t wear or display religious symbols on public grounds, like the famous crucifix case in Italian schools a few years back. Or consider the case of a deceased preacher in Colorado in 2013. The director of the cemetery initially refused to allow the “Jesus fish”– one of the oldest symbols of Christianity – to be carved on the preacher’s tombstone, saying that if he were to permit that, he would have to allow the swastika to be sculpted on other graves, if so requested. Where is the antidote to attitudes like this?

A Four-Principle Solution

More’s spirit of common sense comes to our rescue in the face of such nonsensical oversensibilities.

Religious freedom is not about demanding that everyone acknowledge as true any given spiritual tenet implied in the celebration or recognition of a religious holiday. Jews shouldn’t be uptight about manger scenes in Christian communities, and Christians in the Middle East shouldn’t bewail the Muslim summons to prayer. Putting up Christmas decorations in an elementary school is not vicious governmental propaganda – it’s a common-sense thing to do in December, especially if there are bunch of Christians around! We’re not talking about worship service here – we’re talking about recognizing a tradition commonly held by billions of people throughout the world. What Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, and other faith groups do in their places of worship naturally tends to find public expression. And public religious expression is not public religious coercion. That’s my first point in finding a solution.

My second point is that celebrating “holy” events (a “holiday”) is often contingent upon the people of a particular place. Imposing certain holidays in certain places – like Nirvana Day in the mostly Orthodox population in Moscow – would strike an odd chord. It’s not that we’re out to discriminate against Buddhists; there just aren’t many Buddhists around to justify a city-wide holiday.

More’s religious theory, dependent on the immortality of the soul, stresses a similar notion in that basic conscience principles must be admitted for serene social living. It is ridiculous to attempt to legislate a holiday for every single group out of zeal for minorities. Of course minorities should be welcomed and their traditions respected – is anyone arguing against that? But minorities cannot always impose their religious celebrations on the majority – that’s my third point. You can’t squash out Rosh Hashanah in Haifa because of the minority Muslim community living there. Freedom of religious expression depends on this political prudence, without which little third-graders might arrive home from school, whining to mommy and daddy that their teacher wouldn’t allow them to draw a picture of Santa Claus, “out of respect for non-Christians.”

More’s second principle, the one regarding Divine Providence, is intimately linked to the wearing of religious symbols. People who wear these symbols or publicly adhere to their faith principles believe that God guides their lives and the whole world. When this right to religious expression is diminished or denied, belief in God loses a standing in the public eye. And by taking God out of the picture, we eventually take ourselves out of the picture – that’s my fourth point.

Official tolerance for all faiths thus becomes intolerant of any faith – or at least any faith courageous to challenge adherents and wider society to holiness and (gasp!) conversion. Bakers and photographers in the States understand this tolerance principle well: some out of religious conviction have refused wedding cakes and photos to gay couples, only to be fined by district or federal courts. The message can’t be any clearer: if you don’t tolerate all walks of life, then we won’t tolerate you or your faith.

Religious Freedom Depends On Us

Our culture’s glasses, covered with grime of well-intentioned human respect, seriously need to be cleaned – no, power-washed. Why do we view religious expression and public adherence to faith principles as a threat to everyone? The exact opposite is true: allowing and defending public faith behavior actually protects everyone, for this bedrock principle allows you to choose freely whether or not to adhere to a particular religion. If religious expression and ethical decision-making based on faith were curtailed – out of “respect for everyone else” – we’d all be members of the same church. Overzealous, misguided, unreasoned sensibility will turn us all to mush.

Religion is not a catch-all, excuse-all, faith loophole for acting in whatever way that suits your fancy. Basic principles like the immortality of the soul, Divine Providence, public religious expression, and reasonable, faith-informed decision-making sew citizens together in a dynamic, peaceful harmony – that’s what St. Thomas More wanted to express about religious freedom in Utopia.

But when we as a society fail to recognize these straight and simple rules, our own law books will fail to recognize us. And that’s my last point. When we don’t actively write letters to our politicians, make our opinions known to government officials, or willingly educate ourselves and others on the steady erosion of public religious expression, we lose the battle. Our lack of care is a death sentence. St. Thomas More lost his head in 1535 because his king did not tolerate his religious principles. What will society do to us if it fails to recognize our own?

 

 

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About Br Andrew Torrey LC

Br. Andrew Torrey LC is studying philosophy in Rome. He is the youngest of three brothers, all born and raised in Louisiana, where porches and backyards are home to some of the most friendly, good-cookin’, warm, just-plain-good people ever known. After high school, at 18, he joined the Legion, to which his two brothers also belong. They precede him in age, religious life, and probably in holiness (but not in baking – he can make a mean carrot cake).
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