'Oh say can you see ...'

Friday, June 23, 2017 - Updated: 9:15 am

Once again, my dear readers, and with your indulgence, I take you back to my childhood days.

Every year in the 1950s, we residents of the Beaver County town of Ambridge would come together on the Fourth of July to celebrate our freedom as a “steel town” on the Ohio River.

Thousands of us would line Eighth Street for the better part of the morning as we cheered on grade-school kids who were competing against each other in the Soap Box Derby race. The cars used in the race were all hand-built according to the specifications of the national Soap Box Derby Association. The winner of the race would ride in an open Chevrolet convertible down the derby route to the cheers of hundreds and hundreds of Bridgers and with our best wishes as they would advance to the national competition in Akron, Ohio.

Then we would go to our picnics — hamburgers, hot dogs, potato salad, watermelon and the like — preceded by softball, baseball, badminton and tennis. The atmosphere was always special — a day unlike most others. Stores were closed so we could all come together as families and celebrate our freedom as a nation.

Finally, around 8 p.m., many of us would go to the football stadium of Ambridge High School to get ready for a spectacular fireworks display. It began shortly after nightfall. But before the sky lit up with the fiery nightcap, we all stood with our hands over our hearts singing our national anthem: “Oh say can you see …”

And in this yearly ritual, we took for granted our rights of freedom that all came together in the Declaration of Independence, signed on July 4, 1776.

Don’t take it for granted

I suspect that many of you have similar memories of your own rituals on the Fourth of July.

How much all that has changed over the years to our own day. Stores are by and large open for business. Many aren’t free to take the day off. The Fourth is quickly becoming a day like any other. But most significantly, I propose, we have come to see that the freedom defined by the signers of our Constitution is no longer something that can be taken for granted.

Freedom is now sometimes used to denounce institutions that previously commanded respect: our military, our police officers, our political leaders (even the Office of the President), and particularly our religious communities. There are also those who exploit freedom to denounce people they resent: immigrants, journalists, religious minorities, members of the LGBTQ community.

As our nation becomes more and more polarized, people with certain agendas are attempting to redefine religion as a solely private exercise with little or no voice in the public arena.

There are attempts to have our religious freedom be undermined by those who seek to undermine human dignity and the sacredness of human life. They know that Christians and many people of other faith traditions are willing to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves. They see us as an obstruction to what is generally accepted as “conventional wisdom.” We see this in the push for an unlimited right to abortion. Or the current push for euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. Or for radical redefinitions not only of marriage but of gender and who we are as human beings.

I do not deny the rights of those who advocate for such things. But there is an equal right for an alternative vision. The very right of people of faith to have a voice in these critical issues is under attack. The very right of people of faith to live and serve according to their beliefs is being challenged, undermined and threatened by those who would force pro-life doctors to perform abortions, force Catholic institutions to facilitate access to contraceptives, and bar Catholic institutions from welcoming and serving refugees.

What we are witnessing is an early symptom of the consequences that we see overseas when religious freedom is compromised or denied. In the last century, it is estimated that 45 million souls — 45 million! — were killed because of their faith. And nothing tells us that this is easing in the 21st century. I have read statistics to show that nearly seven in 10 of the world’s people live with restrictions on religious beliefs and practices.

Persecution, torture and terrorism aimed at believers worldwide — Christians and non-Christians alike — are horribly ordinary. Look at what is happening every day to Christians in Syria. The non-partisan, non-sectarian International Society for Human Rights estimates that 150,000 Christians throughout the world are killed every year for their faith.

Respond with charity

We must respond. Our response must be strong. But it also must be charitable. We must never reinforce our opponents’ caricature of us by reacting with anger or stereotyping others as we have been stereotyped. Religious freedom is a human right rooted in our nation’s Constitution, promoted by the United Nations, and reflective of nations that are healthy and peaceful. History and the facts are on its side.

That’s the message of the Fortnight for Freedom, our annual campaign in every diocese throughout our country to support, protect and defend our right to espouse our religious beliefs, to practice our religious beliefs and to defend our religious beliefs in the public arena. It is our opportunity to say firmly and respectfully that our faith is not a private practice to be kept behind closed doors, hidden in the sacristy, caricatured and silenced when public values are debated in the public square.

From June 21, the vigil of the feasts of St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More, martyrs for freedom of conscience, to July Fourth, Independence Day, the Catholic Church in America calls attention to the hallmark constitutional virtue of religious freedom. In the Fortnight for Freedom, we reaffirm our convictions that we are not about to forfeit that right.

We have a right to our faith. We have a right to apply the principles of our faith to public issues. It would be irrational to claim that because the Bible says, “Thou shalt not steal,” laws against theft are, therefore, unconstitutional. No one should make a similar claim about laws against abortion or concerns about the redefinition of marriage or our obligation to treat others, every other, with dignity and respect, regardless of race, gender, politics, sexual orientation or national origin. Our arguments must always be based on reason that is accessible to everyone, regardless of faith. But people of faith, and their convictions, must never be driven from the public square. While religion is personal, it is meant to be active in the world. Based on the First Amendment to our Constitution, no one can or should be silenced on religious grounds.

Pray for religious freedom

The question each of us faces is clear: What do we do about this? What do we do to raise our voices against the anti-religious atrocities our sisters and brothers face worldwide? What do we do to raise our voices against those who would silence people of faith?

First. The answer is contained in the question itself. We raise our voices. We speak out fearlessly. Too often, people of faith self-censor, worried that to speak out will get them called ugly names and incur ugly treatment. That may indeed happen. But the time for silence is long past. There is a greater and necessary good here.

Second. We need a time of preparation. Perhaps that is how each of us can best use this year’s Fortnight for Freedom. We can begin with fasting — giving something up in sacrifice, in offering up something important to us, as a way to express our living understanding of religious freedom. It is something we can each do in our own personal way as an active prayer for the intention of the preservation of religious freedom.

Above all, we need to pray. Pray for the protection of all human beings; pray for an end to the ugly divisions in our nation and world; pray for religious freedom. Offer a rosary this Fortnight for Freedom. Attend daily Mass. Make a Holy Hour. Offer an Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be. Every day.

Much has changed how you and I have celebrated the Fourth of July over the years. But all of us can still place our hands over our hearts and sing the national anthem, “Oh say can you see …,” with the same passion evident in the signers of the Declaration of Independence. And their purpose and ours? To truly be the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”

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