Words can be misused, and “epic” is one of them. A few years ago it displaced “awesome” as a go-to word for teens. Even the most trivial things were “epic.” No harm done; every generation has its pet words. But in actual fact, an epic is a poem or story recounting the mighty struggles and heroic deeds of legendary people. Beowulf and the Iliad, both written centuries ago, are epics. They are anything but trivial.
In the mid-20th century J.R.R. Tolkien gave us his epic tale of good versus evil, Lord of the Rings. The story recounts the adventures of a fellowship of men, elves, dwarves, and hobbits who set out to destroy a ring of power and evil before it falls back into the hands of its maker, the Dark Lord Sauron. The ring had been entrusted to a tiny hobbit, Frodo, for transport to a safe place. Sauron’s evil riders, the Nazgul, relentlessly pursue him. As Frodo flees for safety he meets Aragorn, one the story’s heroes. Unlike Frodo, Aragorn understands the power of the ring and the danger facing Frodo. “Are you frightened?” Aragorn asks him. Frodo says yes, but Aragorn responds, “Not nearly frightened enough; I know what hunts you.” More fearful for their homelands than themselves, Frodo and the fellowship heroically battle through every obstacle until, against all odds, they triumph over Sauron.
The struggle for freedom is the greatest epic of all time. Freedom is the gift from God that allows us to seek what is objectively good. Religious freedom is the greatest freedom because it allows us to seek God, our greatest good, as conscience dictates. The desire for freedom is universal, and its attainment is man’s greatest achievement.
But men have an insatiable desire for power, and power corrupts. Throughout history, man’s desire for unlimited power has often trumped his respect for individual human rights. Sadly, religious persecution has been an all too frequent blot on the chronicle of mankind. Those who have stood strong in its face are revered as heroes. The Bible tells the stories of 90-year old Eleazar and of a mother and her seven sons, all tortured and killed because they refused a king’s request to eat pork in violation of Jewish religious practice. In 1535, St. Thomas More refused to swear allegiance to King Henry VIII rather than the papacy. St. Thomas called himself “the king’s good servant, but God’s first.” He was beheaded for his priorities. The state does not willingly play second fiddle to anyone—even God.
One hundred years later, persecuted Puritans and Catholics in Europe gambled that they could find religious freedom in the new land across the Atlantic. Little by little, the colonies recognized religious rights. By 1791, the colonial experience of religious freedom had become the American way of life. The Constitution established that government belonged to the people. The first sentence of the Bill of Rights guaranteed religious liberty for all. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” No longer could people be forced to choose between God and country. In the atmosphere of freedom, religious practice flourished, and so did the good works of religious organizations. For years, faith-based organizations have educated our young, cared for the poor and homeless, and tended to the sick and dying in ways that the government could never accomplish.
The weakness of the Constitution lies in its inability to enforce its protections. The preservation of freedom needs the state’s help, but men run the state and men seek power. Last January, the state wielded its heavy hand. In an unprecedented move, the Obama administration issued the Health and Human Services mandate requiring all insurance policies to cover sterilization, contraception and abortion-inducing drugs. The mandate exempts only a small subset of religious organizations—basically churches themselves. Schools, hospital, social service agencies, and private employers must provide coverage regardless of their conscientious objections. The mandate is now in effect, with a one-year safe harbor for some employers.
The mandate is unnecessary. Contraception can be purchased for as little as $9 per month, and that will not break anyone’s bank. Though we all need food, we do not require employers to provide food insurance. We need transportation, but employers need not provide car insurance. So why should employers be forced to provide sex insurance, particularly when doing so violates that’s beliefs of conscience.
That’s not the only problem. The mandate runs counter our history of conscientious objection, a history dating back to the Revolutionary War. If we honor conscientious objection when national security is at stake, how can we refuse to do so when it is not? And the mandate is counterproductive. Some employers plan to shut down rather than violate their consciences. Who will educate the students, and tend the sick, poor, homeless, and all others who have been helped by religious organizations? Who will provide for the jobs lost?
Worst of all, the power grab will not end with contraception, for this is not really about contraception. It is about the state’s insistence that it can force its will on others, even if it means violating basic constitutional and human rights. A video played during the president’s re-nomination convention declared: “government is the only thing that we all belong to.” But if we belong to the state, then we are subjects, not citizens. We would live to serve the state, not God. So what’s next—limits on family size, or forced contraceptive use, or mandatory genetic testing and abortion of the disabled? An uncontrolled state takes second place to no one—not even God. If we are frightened by the current power grab, we are not frightened nearly enough.
We need to think about our homeland and our posterity. A fellowship must again be formed, this time of voters. The battle is on November 6. Liberty hangs in the balance.