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Religious Liberty: Have You Lost It?

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Stephen Herreid - published on 03/06/14

Freedom can die; it can die in men's hearts.

History can teach us a lot more than we may want to know about the dangers the Church faces today. The totalitarian regimes of the 20th century arose among people who were not of another species, and in many cases not even of another faith.

In his book, An Ecclesial Existence, Hans Urs Von Balthasar quotes George Bernanos on liberty:

“‘Just recall for a moment: thousands upon thousands, no, millions of young men who were just like you suddenly lost their taste for freedom, as you lose your sleep or your appetite … These young men were not savages. They were the sons of the very ancient and illustrious German Christendom, your very neighbors.’ In the 1920s, ‘millions and millions of people no longer believed in freedom, that is, they no longer loved it, they no longer felt its necessity. … For a long time the State had been deriving strength from everything its citizens abandoned with full consent.’”

I recently reread John Paul II’s commentary on the liberty that the American founders gave us:

“Reading the founding documents of the United States, one has to be impressed by the concept of freedom they enshrine: a freedom designed to enable people to fulfill their duties and responsibilities toward the family and toward the common good of the community. Their authors clearly understood that there could be no true freedom without moral responsibility and accountability, and no happiness without respect and support for the natural units or groupings through which people exist, develop, and seek the higher purposes of life in concert with others.”

When an acquaintance of mine read that passage, he lamented that the American founders also “allowed” for us to pursue the wickedness that pervades our culture today. Well, yes, and so does God. We are endowed by our Creator with more freedom than the devil wants us to have, and we should resist the tempter when he entices us to despair and bow under the yoke of arbitrary power.

The now-clichéd remark of Lord Acton — that “power tends to corrupt” — is cliched for good reason. His warning derived its immortality from being repeatedly vindicated by history. I don’t believe in limiting the government merely because the current administration is not on my side. I believe in limiting the government because men are fallen and given to temptation, and giving tremendous power to a few fallen men is so likely to result in their being tempted to violence that the very existence of an unbridled, coercive state is unconscionable.

It took extraordinarily evil men to bring about the horrors of the Gulag and the concentration camp. But it also took the seemingly milder vices of mediocrity, arrogance, and complacency on the part of many people who were just like us, and who chose to keep silent as their freedom and responsibility were taken from them, and lethal state power was amassed in the hands of evil men.

Let’s guard against the temptation to give up. As the danger of losing our liberty is great, so is the temptation to let our enemies take it from us. As George Bernanos said, “You’re being told: Freedom cannot die. But it can die — it can die in men’s hearts.”

Stephen Herreid is currently a Fellow at the John Jay Institute (Philadelphia) and the arts editor for Humane Pursuits. He has been a Contributing Editor to The Intercollegiate Review Online and has contributed several chapters to the latest edition of ISI’s Choosing the Right College.

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Religious Freedom
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