Remember that old-fashioned concept that it was blessed to be persecuted (per Jesus, Sermon on the Mount)? Or that religion is like a nail: the harder you hammer it, the deeper it goes? (per Yemelian Yaroslavsky, godless communist)? Today we declare those days over in the U.S. of A.
Christianity has won. Oh, and did we mention that this religion may die here as a result?
It seemed like a good idea at the time, so good it was passed by a unanimous U.S. House of Representatives and with only three no votes in the Senate, then signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 seemed such a good idea that it spawned more than 20 copycats at the state level, such as the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The concept is simple: If the government has a rule that burdens your sincerely held religious belief, then you’re exempt unless the government has a really good reason for the rule and applies it as narrowly as possible to you. This has come to mean a for-profit company like Hobby Lobby can opt out of providing contraceptive coverage to its female employees. Like-minded companies are also seeking religious exemption from laws banning discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community.
One court recently held that religious exemptions from COVID-19 vaccine mandates extend to those believing they have received divine instruction not to receive the shot. Given courts’ historic reluctance to second-guess whether a religious belief is sincerely held, the “divine instruction” justification will surely be relied upon by future plaintiffs as well. God may soon be claimed as telling some to disregard the speed limit, perhaps even stop signs.
Prior holdings that looked to how long and persistently a religious belief had been held (such as for the use of peyote by some Native American religions) seem quaint when a refusal of a COVID-19 vaccine in any way tested in any way using fetal cells in any way ever traceable to an abortion is upheld, even where the plaintiff historically used similarly tested/developed vaccines such as those for chickenpox, rabies or hepatitis A.
Christianity — specifically the evangelical strain — has at last been given the preeminent position of political power in American life to which many believe it is entitled. With lifetime appointments, Supreme Court justices pre-cleared by Republican leader Mitch McConnell ensure this is the new normal. Everyone else and everything else must make way for any sincerely held belief.
How peculiar for a religion whose original hand-picked leaders are almost all reported to have died the painful deaths of martyrs. Victory must feel as sweet for the new Christian nationalists in the United States as it once felt for the religionists who came to control the thrones of Europe. As with them, a rising political tide that bears a cross just as thoroughly sinks the cross as the tide recedes.
Studies showing declining American loyalty to churches are no coincidence, particularly among upcoming generations. Having been told a particular god demands they discriminate against gays, refuse the COVID-19 vaccine (even if it ends up killing a neighbor) and make voting difficult for all but the landed gentry, today’s youth are understandably absent from the pew.
Add to that the number who took a COVID-19 pause from church attendance and the numbers may never recover.
To the spiritually corpulent brand of American Christians experiencing the precipice of earthly power, enjoy it while it lasts. As the meager 5% of the population attending church in the United Kingdom (and its Church of England) might warn, you are writing your own obituary.
In the meantime, those more attuned to an old-school, love-your-neighbor sort of religion are no doubt horrified.
David Gallagher is a transplanted Texan who is principal of London-based communications firm DG Advisory. David Schleicher is a Waco-based attorney licensed in Texas, the District of Columbia and Washington who represents businesses and federal employees.