Another coalition for religious freedom?

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s 1990 decision in Employment Division v. Smith, a broad, bipartisan coalition quickly formed to restore to federal law a robust understanding of religious freedom, which many believed Smith had severely attenuated. RFRA, as the bill was known, passed the U.S. House of Representatives by a voice vote, was adopted 97-3 by the U.S. Senate, and was signed into law by President Clinton on Nov. 16, 1993, its rapid and overwhelming passage a testimony to the strength of the pro-RFRA coalition.

Could such a coalition be re-assembled in light of various threats to religious freedom in the United States today? One would like to think so; but it’s not an easy case to make.

A distinguished rabbi, asked some months ago whether the RFRA coalition could be stitched together once more, suggested, sadly, that it would be like putting Humpty-Dumpty together again: “You want to know what happened to the RFRA coalition?” he asked a constitutional scholar. “I’ll tell you what happened: gay rights happened. It’s created an irresistible force against an immovable object.”

A Catholic bishop, a party to the same conversation, agreed, although his explanation for the demise of the old RFRA coalition was a bit broader. The protection of believers’ rights and consciences, he suggested, is in direct conflict with the ideology of the sexual revolution. That’s why the flashpoints in the current religious freedom battles have been abortion, contraception, sterilization and marriage.

I would add a third reason to the doubters’ skepticism: the willingness of religious intellectuals, including the Catholic Theological Society of America, to sacrifice a robust understanding of religious freedom on the altar of what they believe to be other social goods, including the expansion of the welfare state.

All of these factors conspire (in the sense of “work together”) to make it very difficult to re-assemble the bipartisan coalition that passed RFRA. Given the positions that the Democratic Party espouses on abortion and the full agenda of the gay insurgency, it’s not easy to see how Democrats sensitive to the dominant ideological and funding currents in their party would join in supporting strong religious freedom protections—especially when core Democratic constituencies think that “religious freedom” is a cover for “irrational bigotry” on matters of “reproductive rights” and “gay rights.” Then there are those Republicans who devoutly (or impiously) wish that “the social issues” would simply go away—a political cause far more difficult for them to advance within their camp than the pro-life/pro-marriage-rightly-understood cause among Democrats, but an obstacle to coalition-building nonetheless.

What the difficulties of re-assembling the old RFRA coalition suggest is that there has been a serious erosion of American political culture since the early 1990s—and at the root of that deterioration are profound confusions about the human condition. If everything in the human condition is plastic and malleable—if there are no givens—then claims to “my truth” on which you cannot legitimately impose “your truth” make sense. If, on the other hand, some things simply are—such as the human dignity of the unborn child or the nature of marriage—then we can learn what is right and wrong, what is true and false, what is conducive to human happiness or conducive to human misery, by pondering those givens and trying to discern the deep truths they teach us about ourselves and how we should live: truths that have been illuminated for centuries by biblical religion.

America began with the assertion of deep truths written into the human condition by “Nature, and Nature’s God” (as the Declaration of Independence put it). In an election season likely to be dominated by very practical (and important) questions about the economy, it will be well to keep a deeper, more searching set of questions in mind: Are we still a nation dedicated to certain moral truths? If so, how do we recover an ability to talk about those truths together?

And if not, what have we become?

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.


Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.