In the chaotic year of 2020, anti-religious activists have learned that the best place to hide is in a crowd. With news cycles crowded by COVID-19, nationwide protests and riots, a contentious election, and much more, such activists were given perfect cover to vandalize houses of worship across America while drawing little criticism from secular media or public officials. These tragic acts of vandalism matter, however, and the motives behind them deserve examination.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recently reported at least 39 incidents of vandalism on Catholic Church property since June 22. This alarming number makes sense given the Catholic Church’s history of statuary and the frequent targeting of statues in this year’s riots.
In addition to incidents such as satanic graffiti on a church in Connecticut, and a Florida man driving his van into a church before lighting the vehicle on fire, numerous church statues of Jesus, Mary, saints, and even a monument for children killed by abortion have been toppled, beheaded, and graffitied. That’s not all. The many incidents on church property detailed by the Conference of Catholic Bishops don’t account for the numerous statues of Catholic saints on public property that have been vandalized, too.
In St. Louis, large groups of sometimes-violent protesters graffitied the prominent public statue of St. Louis (King Louis IX), the city’s namesake, who frequently shared meals with beggars and ministered to other outcasts such as lepers, the blind, and even prostitutes.
The violence went further in California. Protesters destroyed a statue of St. Junipero Serra, a Spanish missionary who founded many historic churches (one of which was largely burned down in July) and evangelized thousands of Native Americans. Additionally, as Pope Francis noted when he canonized Serra in 2015, “Junipero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it.”
Certain elements of the race-related protests this year have surely been honest, well-intentioned efforts, but that cannot be said of this violence that has treated St. Junipero and St. Louis the same way it has treated Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Instead, a subgroup of radical secularists among the rioters has used the recent lawlessness as an opportunity to advance their own agenda — one that opposes Judeo-Christian religion in its entirety.
While Catholic statues have been a convenient target, these radicals haven’t chosen to destroy religious figures at random. Their animosity toward faith traditions is intended. As you might recall, rioters set fire to the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., this past May. In Kenosha, Wisconsin, rioters graffitied “Free Palestine” at a Jewish synagogue. Further examples abound.
Even more tragically, many people of faith have watched this vandalism while being prohibited from stepping inside their own houses of worship, sometimes due to anti-religious discrimination from government officials. One prime example is Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak’s COVID-19 order, currently being challenged in court, which allowed casinos to open at half capacity while limiting churches to just 50 people.
As Archbishop Charles Chaput and Alliance Defending Freedom CEO Michael Farris pointed out, some officials implementing discriminatory restrictions have also been slow to protect the church property from rioters. As our nation wrestles with challenging issues, officials such as Sisolak and anti-religious rioters are forgetting that successful social movements — including the civil rights movement for racial equality in the law — don’t attack religion. Rather, they are usually rooted in it.
The American Revolution and the French Revolution provide a relevant history lesson. These two movements shared some noble goals, both seeking freedom from national theocracy and monarchy — but those ends were pursued in two very different ways.
The French Revolution was outright hostile toward religion. Church property was vandalized. Priests were arrested just for conducting their normal ministry. Religious statues were removed from the public eye and sometimes demolished because religious devotion threatened the aims of the revolution.
Our Founding Fathers chose a better path. They cared deeply about religion and forged a new nation where people of various faiths could live peacefully without coercion from an all-powerful central government. The founders’ success in winning independence, reforming our governance, and improving American life was rooted in a commitment to free speech and Judeo-Christian principles that fostered a true tolerance.
Whether it be responding to COVID-19, police brutality, or political unrest, the solution to our nation’s present problems will not be found in throwing out those principles of liberty and civility. The answer lies in recommitting to them and working to live them out more fully, more consistently, and more devotedly than ever before.