Neal J. Conway

Fostering a Culture of First Amendment Freedoms

(Dec. 24, 2014)
Let's begin with two stories that illustrate the problem addressed herein. A family in the Boston suburb of Newton Massachusetts has decked it's old house with lights and a manger scene for a couple generations. In 2013 the family received an anonymous letter from a neighbor which informed them that "Not everybody in your neighborhood is Christian and many people do not wish to see such a flagrant display of your beliefs." (1)

The anonymous author is clearly a species who abounds in Boston and other Northeast Corridor suburbs, a liberal, probably atheist, anti-christian who believes that religious faith should be kept behind closed doors. And he or she likely favors the use of state power to keep it behind them. However while awaiting that new birth of freedom from godliness, the party is acting as a vanguard of the repressive fascist state that is evolving. He or she is comparable to the Moslems in London, who adjusting their sails to the wind direction, tell shopkeepers to stop selling alchohol.(2)

The letter continues, "Imagine how you would feel to drive past an anti-Christian lawn display every day!"

And this raises the good question: How do some Christians respond to anti-Christian expressions?

The answer is to be found in Pitman, New Jersey, locus of our second anecdote. In Pitman, as in many small towns, the Knights of Columbus put up their "Keep Christ in Christmas" banners. And naturally --no surprise, anymore-- the Knights were countered by atheists who need to get a life. The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) pasted a "Keep Saturn in Saturnalia" billboard on the outskirts of town.

Let us first note that this billboard said nothing against Christ or Christianity. The town also got off lightly. Photos indicate that the KofC banners were hung over town streets, suspended between town utility poles. According to an FFRF spokesman, Pitman would not allow atheist displays. The foundation could have sued, digging a hole full of legal fees for a small town, but they chose instead to express their lack of belief through the billboard.

What was the reaction of some Pitman citizens? According to Mayor Russ Johnson, people were "upset"
because "That billboard was put up to mock the Christ in Christmas banner." One family attempted to paste pictures of Jesus over the ringed planet. Then two guys in a pick-up were caught attempting to torch the steel billboard. (3)

Something tells me that the letter writer in Newton would really feel intimidated in Pitman. Like people who bite their nails over Christian expression, some believers need to get a life as well. As a proud second-generation, Third Degree member of the Knights of Columbus I say, "Shame."

First of all, the Christians -- I presume, many Catholics -- of Pitman have the privilege of being able to look up and see K.of C. "Keep Christ in Christmas" banners hanging over their streets. I do not have such a boon in my majority-liberal, godless Washington, DC suburb. Here the Knights of Columbus and other religious groups are not even allowed to raise money for the learning disabled and other charitable causes outside grocery stores because it's too controversial.

As long as we're on the subject of my situation, let me add this. I work hard -- and enjoy it -- to show urban liberals who are hostile to and suspicious of Christianity that a Christian can be a great and helpful coworker, cultured, artsy, fun person, good friend, that is something the opposite of what they think a typical Christian is: a redneck troglodyte riding around in a pick-up with a can of accelerant.

I think that the citizens of towns such as Pitman and any "localmost" political subdivision should have the clear constitutional right to decide, by majority vote, what kind of expressions, religious or otherwise, they will have in their public spaces without interference from individuals, minority groups or outsiders. However I hate hypocrisy especially when it's delivered in a whining tone. A few advents ago, a priest-blogger in my archdiocese gasped on-line that an atheist group was buying ad space on the subway; boy, do they have a lot of nerve! He did not inform/remind his readers -- who were equally indignant, I'm sure -- that for years, the D.C. and Arlington dioceses have been plastering Metro with ads urging lapsed Catholics to "come home for Christmas," with confession being the first step in the door.

As anyone who is published will tell you, people who disagree will respond, often in spades. There is a peanut gallery up there. Comments from it are to be expected.

In the mid-20th Century, repressive fascist and communist regimes made average Americans appreciative of and more liberal about their freedoms of speech, press and religion. Yes, for over fifty years, the liberal conception of these freedoms has favored atheists, left-wingers, pornographers and other envelope pushers. However, religious faith now needs that liberal protection, not the hypocritical liberal protection of freedom only for the politically correct, but the principled liberal conception that holds fast to: I don't agree with what you say or believe, but I'll defend your right to say or believe it."

Religious freedom is now under attack, most obviously through government attempts to force religious institutions and individual believers to faciliate coverage of contraception in health insurance or provide services for "marriages" they don't approve of.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is up to far more sinister activities than putting up comical billboards outside New Jersey towns. For years, the FFRF has been trying to persuade the Internal Revenue Service that preaching and teaching about abortion and homosexuality emanating from churches is political activity that renders those churches ineligible as tax exempt organizations.

College campuses are contributing heartily to the erosion of freedoms. Speakers being shouted down and bras and burritos being protested as "racist" may seem funny, but the intolerance that college students are being habituated in in crazy campus atmospheres is not something they'll leave behind like raccoon coats or toga parties when they graduate.

The campus whiners of today are the activists and elected and appointed officials of tomorrow. Until this country wises up and gets over the Ivy League, most of our highest judges will be graduates of elite law schools such as Harvard where law students recently protested the holding of exams so close to the grand jury decision in Ferguson, MO.

Just as the right to life needs a culture of life to sustain it, so freedoms of religion and speech require a culture of freedom to preserve them. A public that doesn't understand the great wisdom of St. Thomas More's words, "I'd give the devil the benefit of law for my own protection," isn't going to care about the sustenance of freedoms politically. No matter what a law says about freedom, a judge who has been reared to believe that some speech must be silenced will find a way to silence it.

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia testified before the U.S. Senate in 2011, “'If you think a bill of rights is what sets us apart, you’re crazy.' Every banana republic in the world has a bill of rights. Every president for life has a bill of rights. The bill of rights of the former evil empire, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, was much better than ours. I mean it. Literally, it was much better. We guarantee freedom of speech and of the press. Big deal. They guaranteed freedom of speech, of the press, of street demonstrations and protests... ."

To preserve their own freedoms, Catholics and other christians must work to build and culture of freedom. Forget the tit-fot-tat that was displayed in Pitman, New Jersey. The longer I live, the more I understand the foolishness of tit-for-tat. We shouldn't pay kind for kind because "they do it." We should avoid rapaying kind for kind because we are better than they. We are the salt of the earth, not the scum. Liberals already have a majority interest in whining, dishonorable, swinish behavior. They should own them outright.

(1) Jorge Quiroga/WCVB TV, "Newton Christmas light display draws angry letter.", Dec. 17, 2013.

(2) Mark Steyn, "The age of Intolerance," National Review On-Line, Dec. 21. 2013.

(3) Stoyan Zaimov, "'Keep Saturn in Saturnalia' Atheist Billboard in NJ Nearly Torched; Reward for Culprits Offered," Christian Post, Dec 19, 2013.

Copyright 2014 by Neal J. Conway. All rights reserved.

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