The Not So Strange Death of Religious Liberty

A number of long-term trends, including the collapse of mainline Protestantism, has led to the death of religious liberty, killed by the very groups who long defended it.

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Catholics have rightly been appalled by the spectacle of the FBI investigating “radical traditionalist Catholic groups.” If it were not clear already, this is part of a broader campaign against what the National Security apparatus of the United States sees as “disinformation” and “threats” to the government. This campaign appears to be coordinated with elements of the Biden Administration and possibly with help from former members of the Obama administration as well. 

The most striking instances of this are the prosecution of Donald Trump and those involved in the protests of the 2020 presidential election in January of 2021. It appears for all the world that the Biden administration and its allies are using the administrative state to attack its perceived enemies, which apparently includes faithful Catholics. 

How have we come to this pass? Catholics have come to trust that such boundaries would not be crossed, and some commentators have wondered how liberalism could embrace such obvious violations of religious liberty. Especially since the end of WWII, Catholics have come to expect the government to protect them from the depredations of others. Until recently, it did. How did this come about?

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A couple of long-term trends are at work here. The first is the collapse of the old mainline Protestant churches. The reason why this affects religious liberty is that, in practice, religious liberty as Americans understand it was always predicated upon a rapprochement among the various Protestant bodies in this country. Religious liberty allowed the potentially warring factions of Protestantism to work together; this was a necessity during the American Revolution, but the Constitution made it permanent. 

When Catholics became a large enough minority in this country, and nativist anti-Catholicism reared its head, it was the old mainline Protestant bodies—the more liberal ones, mostly—that defended religious liberty for things like parochial schools in the Supreme Court and other elite institutions. With the decline of old mainline churches in the 1960s, this compromise—in which the various Protestants agreed to safeguard Catholic religious liberty in order to safeguard it for themselves—collapsed with them. 

Suddenly, the Protestants most likely in the past to deny Catholics their full religious liberty—mostly Evangelical Protestants—became allies with Catholics against a new, more secular elite, as embodied in Roe v. Wade and other milestones. Catholics gained political allies but lost the patronage of the old WASP establishment that once protected Catholics’ religious liberty.

A more secular elite has succeeded the old WASP establishment, one that is no longer concerned with protecting religious liberty, as previously understood, because conservative Catholics and others who benefited from this are no longer part of their governing coalition. This is reflected in changes these elites have sought to promote in American society. 

From cradle to grave, progressive elites have been bred since the ’60s to believe that racism, sexism, and other past evils were going to disappear from all areas of life, not just politics. Once the older generation of Americans, with their racism and homophobia died off, so the thinking went, their beliefs would die with them. This belief can be summed up in the phrase “the right side of history.” 

This phrase was prominent in progressive rhetoric during the Obama administration, of course. I never took this kind of talk seriously, since my training as a historian led me to regard these types of ideologically charged beliefs with suspicion. Hindsight proves how deadly serious most progressives took it. The election of Obama seemed to have been a signal for these elites that the time had now come to cleanse the nation of its sins.  The election of Obama seemed to have been a signal for these elites that the time had now come to cleanse the nation of its sins. Tweet This

As we all know, “history” had other plans. Trump’s election shook them to their core, as it demonstrated that all of their planning and activism to control institutions could fail. Much of the hysteria emanating from the Left, but also the brazen attempts at undermining Trump’s election, stems from the puncturing of the narrative these elites created for themselves about the way the world is supposed to work.

That may be the case, but what does this have to do with the Church, or even religion in general, other than its being part of the social fabric which the Left wishes to transform? The answer, and the second reason religious liberty is dying, is that liberalism has abandoned the distinction of public and private life—and the necessity of keeping government out of private life, once so crucial to it. 

There are many reasons this is the case. One is the obvious influence of the New Left and its emphasis on sex. Its partisans were largely responsible for turning the slogan “the personal is the political” into a reality, perhaps urged on by the perceived sexual hypocrisy (real or imagined) of the previous generation of leaders. 

Another is the advance of technology. As early as 1977, the great scholar and author Marshall McLuhan could declare that “everybody has become porous” to each other “because we now have the means to keep everybody under surveillance.” As usual, he was ahead of his time.

This blurring of public and private has been accompanied by a blurring of domestic and international politics, some of which is crucial to the history of religious liberty in this century. Elites always see domestic and international politics as linked, since they have active relationships with foreign heads of state that normal citizens cannot. But recent developments have blurred that line completely. I am thinking of the Cold War, though it probably began earlier, with WWI. 

Domestically speaking, from harassing German-Americans during WWI to spying on communist sympathizers during the Cold War all the way up to the War on Terror, the security apparatus of the United States has become ever more powerful, and ever more bold. Informed Americans should be aware by now just how subversive the activities of the CIA have been in foreign countries, especially in places like Latin America. The revelation that intelligence agencies were coordinating with Twitter to influence an election in the United States is a development, however shocking, with precedents in U.S. history, both at home and abroad.

What has this to do with religious liberty? During the Cold War, promoting religious liberty abroad was part of the United States government’s strategy to undermine communism, both in the USSR and its satellite states. Catholics should understand this better than anyone. Most know how much John Paul II’s presence helped undermine the communist government in Poland, but the Vatican had been working with the U.S. government against communism long before this. 

For example, in the 1948 Italian parliamentary elections following WWII, the Vatican worked with the CIA to ensure the Italian communist party did not win a majority. During the Cold War, the CIA regularly used Christian missionaries, including Catholics, in gathering intelligence, and there is evidence that John Courtney Murray pushed for religious liberty to be enshrined into Catholic teaching partly at the urging of the CIA. And the Catholic Church was not the only religion the U.S government attempted to influence for its own purposes, not by a long shot.

But after the Cold War, both the United States’ enemies and its leadership changed. No longer looking for religious allies against the Godless commies, they now found themselves needing to undermine Islamic governments like Iran and terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda, as well as religious-nationalist regimes like that of Russia. They are now actively promoting their “Rainbow Revolution” in these types of countries for the same reason they promoted religious liberty in the Cold War, in order to undermine their enemies.

And because our elites see little distinction between foreign and domestic affairs, their perception of those enemies naturally colors perceived political opponents at home. They often talk as if they are one and the same. Recall the Wikileaks emails, which revealed Democratic party activists musing about the need for a “Catholic Spring,” in imitation of the “Arab Spring” that overthrew the Egyptian government in 2011. 

Or take this review of two books on Catholicism and the CIA. The author of the review, a professor from Duquesne University, claims the relationship between the CIA and Catholicism has changed because American Catholicism is now dominated by a “hard-edged, reactionary, pre-Vatican II strain” promoted by “right wing bishops appointed by John Paul II and Benedict (XVI).” These work in tandem with Catholic politicians and “their outright majority on the Supreme Court” to achieve “power and influence,” while “leftist, social-justice Catholics…no longer pose any danger to the CIA.” I’m guessing that the FBI’s targeting of Latin Mass parishes or raiding the homes of Catholic pro-life activists does not cause the author to lose any sleep at night.

In short, many people running elite institutions in this country think of “traditional” Catholics, or faithful Christians of any sort, as enemies. They are using the power of these institutions to reduce legal protections for these religions because they see them as threats to concerns of their new political coalition. Only those religious bodies that openly support their causes (LGBTQ+, anti-racism, etc.) will be spared these depredations, which is why some are trying so hard to signal their support for them.

While it is true that recent Supreme Court victories will slow down this effort, this will not stop them from trying—and probably having a fair amount of success in practice. The Left has shown their willingness to use the administrative state to get around court decisions and laws it does not like, and religious liberty will be no exception. As the coming generation will be even more inclined to think traditional religious faith a threat, this is not going to change any time soon.

Catholics should protect as much of their religious liberty as they can, but they must understand that this will be a matter of active political effort going forward. They can no longer simply expect government authorities to protect the practice of their faith, whether in public or private. As we have seen, they will often actively work to remove any such remaining legal protection. 

Catholics must continue to work with Evangelical Protestants and other believers of goodwill—even Muslims—to protect the practice of their faith. But make no mistake, “religious liberty,” as we once understood it, is dead. And it is not coming back—because the historical conditions that led to its flourishing are a thing of the past.


  • Darrick Taylor

    Darrick Taylor earned his PhD in History from the University of Kansas. He lives in Central Florida and teaches at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, FL. He also produces a podcast, Controversies in Church History, dealing with controversial episodes in the history of the Catholic Church.

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