None of us are strangers to the so-called culture wars: the longstanding, passionate, bitter debates over school prayer, abortion, pornography, sex education, same-sex marriage, transgenderism, women in combat and the rest; or to wider, related cultural transformations, like the ascendency of the new atheism beginning a decade ago, or the accompanying rise of secularism and secularization. 

Momentous though all of these developments have been, they’re also no longer news.

But what’s happening among Western religious believers today is like nothing that has happened before. By 2016, in many influential cultural, political, and intellectual precincts, C for Christian has become the new scarlet letter.

Small wonder. The ranks of people pilloried and deprived of their own “pursuit of happiness” now grow apace: the high school football coach suspended in Washington state in 2015 for kneeling to say a prayer at the end of a game;  the American military chaplains who claim to have been reassigned on account of their faithfulness to traditional Christianity; the small business owners working in the wedding industry at a time when vindictiveness in the name of the sexual revolution is apparently boundless; the Christian staffer at a day-care center who would not address a six-year-old boy as a girl, and was fired on account of it; the teacher fired in New Jersey for giving a curious student a Bible; and related cases in which acting on religious conviction has been punished, at times vehemently. 

These disparate stories taken from recent headlines are examples of a toxic new force now hurtling across the United States and other advanced societies. They are part of the mounting toll of a widespread and growing effort to shame, punish and ostracize people because of what they believe. This is moral and social change for the worse—and not only in the United States, but across the boundaries of what can still be called Western civilization.

If Christians feel threatened at home, that is nothing compared to what they discern upon looking around the world. The domestic campaign against belief looks increasingly like one front in a larger global campaign against Christians, period.

In short, what many Western men and women of faith feel to the marrow these days is fear.

Fear that they will lose the good opinions of their neighbors, family and friends—because Christianity, especially, is said over and over to stand on the wrong side of history; because religious faith of that particular kind is denigrated across popular culture, and disdained as retrograde or worse in many citadels of higher learning.

Fear that Christian institutions will lose tax-
exempt status and have to shut down their charitable operations. Fear that the believers will have to close those operations anyway, because of nonstop lawsuits by adversaries who don’t want to pick up charitable slack themselves—but who do want to punish the believers for the existence of traditional Judeo-Christian moral teaching.

People of faith today also understand they are being driven to the margins of what’s called (ironically) polite society. They worry their religious universities and colleges will either capitulate to the demands of this newly intolerant secularism—or refuse to break, and be stripped to the bone by legal fees instead. They apprehend, above all, that their children will suffer in the decades to come: shunned by the wider world, punished in all the better places, and intimidated out of practicing the faith passed down to them.

These are visible people living an invisible story. And there are millions of them.

It is eye-opening to spend time among the believers right now. Until practically the day before yesterday, all these Christian people were just so many ordinary Americans, living and working and socializing alongside everyone else. Now some of them believe that re-treat from society itself is the only way they will save their churches, children, and souls.

How We Got Here

People who haven’t spent time among the believers lately might be shocked to hear how Christian leaders now talk about the future. Whether or not they have any use for organized faith themselves, most modern Western men and women likely take freedom of religion for granted. After all, that “first liberty,” as it is called in the history books—as well as by Catholic bishops and others trying to protect it in recent years in the face of the onslaught that brought the likes of the Little Sisters of the Poor to the Supreme Court—is one of the foundations of our country, part of the story we tell ourselves about the character of our nation.

For more than two centuries Americans have prided themselves on their commitment to freedom of religion. Readers who lean in a more secular direction might be surprised to hear that anything has happened to shake that bedrock pledge. After all, we often hear that the United States remains a deeply religious nation. Yet in recent years that historic commitment to freedom has come under siege.

Two events explain this sudden shift. First is the passage of the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, in 2010. One of its key provisions is that employers must cover the costs of contraception—even religious institutions that hold any such cooperation to be a violation of conscience. This ideological power play is understood by those institutions to be a direct challenge to their constitutional protections. The so-called contraceptive mandate forces Christian charities to participate in the dispersal of products that Christian doctrine holds to be sinful. If that isn’t a head-on collision with the principle of religious liberty, what is? Not surprisingly, the mandate has resulted in an avalanche of litigation. 

Secular readers also may not understand the depth of violation felt in religious quarters over this mandate of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, Jews and others—all of whom differ among themselves theologically about contraception itself—have been driven together as never before, united in seeing this feature of Obamacare both as dangerous precedent and as a serious challenge to religious liberty  in the United States. One 2013 letter and press conference spearheaded by Russell D. Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention  and William E. Lori, the Catholic archbishop of Baltimore, included a coalition so religiously diverse that the International Society for Krishna Consciousness and the Church of Scientology were among those also “standing together for religious freedom,” as the open letter put it.

The shock of the mandate not only drove together believers of varying faiths. It also became a crucible forging orthodox-leaning together with coreligionists generally seen as “liberal” or “left.” One vivid example was “J’ACCUSE!,” a passionate excoriation of the Obama administration penned in the National Catholic Reporter by Michael Sean Winters in 2012. He wrote:

“I come at this issue as a liberal and a Democrat and as someone who, until yesterday, generally supported the president, as someone who saw in his vision of America a greater concern for each other. … I defended the University of Notre Dame for honoring this man … I [now] accuse you, Mr. President, of dishonoring your own vision by this shameful decision.”

Winters went on to charge Obama variously with “ignoring the Constitution,” “risking the many achievements of political liberalism,” “treating shamefully those Catholics who went out on a limb to support you”—another charge that resonated widely at the time—and above all, “betraying philosophic liberalism, which began, lest we forget, as a defense of the rights of conscience.”

One might wonder what it would take to drive someone accustomed to criticizing Church traditionalists to pen an essay that every one of them could have signed. The answer, again, is the HHS mandate. That act of supposedly progressive fiat, in short, accomplished the seemingly impossible: It united religious people of otherwise varying political and theological opinions around a single idea, which was that a lethal threat to religious liberty has materialized, thanks to Obamacare.

The second major development was the Supreme Court’s 2015 finding in Obergefell v. Hodges, granting same-sex couples the right to marry under the Constitution’s equal protection clause. This decision effectively marked the end of religiously based opposition to same-sex marriage and has also led to an avalanche of legal activity. That same year a Colorado baker who declined on religious principle to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple was ruled to have illegally discriminated against them. The national debate around both issues was conducted in scorched-earth terms, with no holds barred. Among other fallout from the baker’s and similar cases, cries of “hater” and “bigot” now echo across the land, amplified by the anonymity of the Internet and social media campaigns aimed against believers.

Yet even before the passage of Obamacare, religious leaders were responding to the newly chilled atmosphere with rhetoric that should have attracted the attention of anyone concerned with freedom in this country. The late Cardinal Francis George of Chicago famously predicted almost 10 years ago, “I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.” At the time, the statement struck even some believers as overly dramatic. In retrospect, it was instead one early warning sign of an increasingly apocalyptic mood among people of faith.

Recalling the Roots

In November 2015, the Protestant evangelical magazine Decision republished an essay by Billy Graham telling American believers to “prepare for persecution.” American Baptist [theologian and] minister R. Albert Mohler Jr. observes in his 2015 book We Cannot Be Silent: Speaking Truth to a Culture Redefining Sex, Marriage, and the Very Meaning of Right and Wrong that “[w]e should expect horrifying harm, the decline of human flourishing, and restrictions on our message and the freedom of the Christian church” in the time to come. No less an authority than Pope Francis has said that Christians are being “politely persecuted” under the guise of “modernity and progress.” These warnings and others like them now echo through hearts and pulpits across the United States and beyond.

Do unbelievers, and anti- believers, and others who don’t think they have a stake in this fight even know that such things are said among the believers these days? If so, do any of them care? This book has been written in the countercultural hope that there are people of conscience, including and especially secular and progressive people of conscience, who will.

For today’s new intolerance not only threatens everything that drew persecuted immigrants of faith to the New World in the first place. It also menaces something else that has no purchase on the wider conversation as yet, and needs to: the lives and pursuit of happiness of millions of fellow citizens, not only in the United States but across the societies of the Western world.

It’s time for fair-minded men and women who want no part of today’s soft persecution, who still understand that the open society depends on “agreeing to disagree,” to recognize that other people are being wronged.

“In the history of civilization,” wrote the late, leading progressive Christopher Lasch, “vindictive gods give way to gods who show mercy as well and uphold the morality of loving your enemy.” It’s a message of surpassing urgency today.

For More Information:

Excerpted from It’s Dangerous to Believe: Religious Freedom and Its Enemies, by Mary Eberstadt (HarperCollins, 2016). Used with permission.

Originally published in the October 2016 issue of Citizen magazine.