Thomas Griffin 1/12/21
“A society without religion cannot prosper.” These words leap from the pages of a White House document recently released and shout forth to a nation in distress and bleeding from divisions that without God, all is lost. The indisputable history of our land of the free is one built upon the rocky soil of religious liberty. In a time when these rights are often neglected, or even railed against and downright threatened, there is no better opportunity than the present moment to preserve them.
President Trump signed a proclamation on December 28, 2020 confirming these truths on the 850th anniversary of the martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket whose life embodied a rich and profound devotion to God, but also to society. Becket’s life personified the fact that societies cannot prosper without religion and that “a nation without faith cannot endure – because justice, goodness, and peace cannot prevail without the grace of God.”
Despite the countless attacks on houses of worship by governors and legislators in recent months, the president sent a clear message with this declaration regarding the crucial nature of religious faith and why it must be safeguarded. The president notes that “no right is more fundamental to a peaceful, prosperous, and virtuous society than the right to follow one’s religious convictions” and Thomas Becket personifies why this is the case.
He was a Catholic priest and bishop who was a “lion of religious liberty” and a model of how to stand up to tyranny. King Henry II issued the Constitution of Clarendon in 1164 which stripped the Church of several of its rights to organize and be run free from the hands of the king. Becket’s refusal resulted in the initial forfeit of his property and he was forced to flee England. Upon his later return and continued refusal to acknowledge the Constitution, Henry II gave Thomas an ultimatum which led to his execution.
Becket paid the biggest price for his faith and for the liberty which must never be taken for granted. His zeal was not naivete nor was it “pie-in-the-sky” theology. Becket’s own words echo those of all serious religious observers: “God is the supreme ruler, above Kings” and “we ought to obey God rather than men.” When a government infringes upon the rights of religious liberty, we must look to those who were willing to sacrifice it all so that we can have the opportunity to worship today.
“For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death,” Thomas noted. He knew that without this fundamental right, humanity is not fully alive and a culture will ultimately wither. This cause was worth everything in his eyes. Becket’s life witness and “martyrdom changed the course of history. It eventually brought about numerous constitutional limitations on the power of the state over the Church across the West.”
The proclamation recalls the president’s words on two momentous occasions in his tenure when he spoke beautifully and poignantly on this important issue. During his speech at the United Nations in September of 2019, Trump “made clear that America stands with believers in every country who ask only for the freedom to live according to the faith that is within their own hearts” while affirming that countries should never feel blowback for fighting for the dignity of all life – born and unborn.
The president’s speech in Warsaw on July 6, 2017 also shed light on the communist-shattering visit of Pope St. John Paul II to Poland in 1979 which resulted in crowds spanning the millions chanting in unison: “We want God.” President Trump notes that people of all generations and backgrounds still cry out the same chant in the face of religious persecutions across the globe. Despite where our society has drifted, these words echo in the voids of countless human hearts which are unfulfilled by materialism and egoism.
Among the several powerful phrases and truths in Trump’s proclamation the following stands tall among them all as a direct shot across the bow of anyone desiring to destroy what America has always and will always stand for: “If we are to continue to be the land of the free, no government official, no governor, no bureaucrat, no judge, and no legislator must be allowed to decree what is orthodox in matters of religion or to require religious believers to violate their consciences.”
In every other arena in human interaction, people are obligated to and protected in following what they believe is right and true. The idea of a well-formed conscience is even questioned because people have the right to think and do as they wish. The only sphere which this does not apply is Christian morality, especially when it comes to sexual morality (abortion, contraception, marriage, etc.). No government ought to have the ability to force a religion to alter its beliefs because they are not accepted by the masses. In the coming years, with the change in administrations, this will become the most important religious freedom issue and we would do well to remember the truths which President Trump beautifully outlines.
Becket laid the foundation for future church leaders, ordinary citizens and Trump himself to be so bold in their protection of religious freedom. Despite your opinion of the president, we ought to learn from both of their examples while always, always refusing to install anyone as king or ruler above God himself. Only then will America’s vigorous but righteous view of religious liberty reign free and carry us to our final home.
Thomas Griffin teaches at a Catholic high school on Long Island and lives with his wife and son. He received a master’s degree in theology and is currently a master’s candidate in philosophy. He writes for several Catholic media outlets.
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