The erosion of religious freedom

Connoisseurs of political kamikaze runs will long debate what finished off Martha Coakley in the recent Massachusetts election to fill the seat Edward M. Kennedy held for 47 years.

The baseball fan in me likes to think it was Coakley’s bizarre charge that Curt (“Bloody Sock”) Schilling was a Yankees fan—a gaffe in Red Sox Nation commensurate with claiming that the late Senator Kennedy had been a George W. Bush fan. Yet there was another clumsy Coakleyism that ought to have enraged a considerable part of the Bay State electorate. Pressed by an interviewer on what Catholic physicians, nurses and other health-care workers should do when they cannot in conscience provide certain services or conduct certain procedures, Coakley replied, “You can have religious freedom but you probably shouldn’t work in the emergency room.”

A month earlier, speaking at Georgetown University, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton offered a similarly diminished view of religious freedom when she declined to use that term, substituting “freedom to worship” in a catalogue of fundamental human rights that included a striking innovation. Asserting that people must be free to “choose laws and leaders, to share and access information, to speak, criticize and debate,” the secretary of state then averred that people “must be free … to love in the way they choose.”  For those with ears to hear in Gaston Hall that day, the promotion of the so-called LGBT (lesbian/gay/bisexual/ transgendered) agenda had just been declared a human rights priority of the United States, in the same sentence in which the secretary of state had offered an anorexic description of religious freedom that even the Saudis could accept (so long as the worshipping was done behind closed doors in a U.S. embassy).

One has to wonder if there is a connection here.

Religious freedom is already under assault from proponents of the LGBT agenda in Europe and Canada. Rocco Buttiglione’s convictions about the immorality of homosexual acts prevented his becoming Minister of Justice of the European Union, despite a lifetime in defense of the basic human rights of all and an explicit assurance that he would scrupulously enforce the EU’s equal-protection laws. The Canadian Revenue Agency (their IRS) has recently removed the tax-exempt status of a Calgary church, in part because it spends more than 10 percent of its funds and time preaching and teaching against same-sex “marriage” (and, to compound the offense, euthanasia and abortion). Anyone who imagines that this can’t happen in the Great Republic need only consider the recent efforts by the Washington, D.C., City Council to bring the Archdiocese of Washington to heel over the marriage question.

And now we have the successor of John Quincy Adams and William H. Seward, Elihu Root and Cordell Hull, George Marshall and Dean Acheson suggesting that the defense of the LGBT agenda will, as a human rights issue, be considered on a par with such basic human rights as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and religious freedom—and that no small part of the substance of religious freedom may have to be sacrificed, if necessary, to advance that agenda.

Religious freedom, rightly understood, cannot be reduced to freedom of worship. Religious freedom includes the right to preach and evangelize, to make religiously informed moral arguments in the public square and to conduct the affairs of one’s religious community without undue interference from the state. If religious freedom only involves the freedom to worship, then, as noted above, there is “religious freedom” in Saudi Arabia, where Bibles and evangelism are forbidden but expatriate Filipino laborers can attend Mass in the U.S. embassy compound in Riyadh.

In its glory years, the State Department’s human rights bureau was a stalwart friend of those brave men and women in communist countries who were asserting, in addition to their right to worship, their rights as believers to be fully participant in society. That noble legacy should cause the present guardians of U.S. human rights policy to think very carefully about the path they seem to be taking in this field.

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.