Yesterday was the 850th anniversary of the martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, who was killed by followers of King Henry II of England in Canterbury Cathedral for opposing the king and asserting the rights and privileges of the church.
Specifically, Becket was murdered because he refused to go along with the king’s efforts to reduce clerical independence and render the church in England subservient to the crown. He was canonized soon after his death by Pope Alexander III and is still honored today by both Catholics and Anglicans as a great saint and martyr.
In America the feast days of saints and martyrs—even those as notable as Becket—usually pass without much notice. But this year, the White House issued a proclamation on the occasion, noting that “Becket’s death serves as a powerful and timeless reminder to every American that our freedom from religious persecution is not a mere luxury or accident of history, but rather an essential element of our liberty. It is our priceless treasure and inheritance. And it was bought with the blood of martyrs.”
This proclamation from Trump’s White House is remarkable as much for its candid support for religious liberty as for its unapologetic embrace of religion itself. It’s hard to imagine a modern American president, of either party, issuing passages like this, calling not only for an end to religious persecution worldwide (and specifically in China) but for a revival of religion in the United States:
We pray for religious believers everywhere who suffer persecution for their faith. We especially pray for their brave and inspiring shepherds—like Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong and Pastor Wang Yi of Chengdu—who are tireless witnesses to hope.
To honor Thomas Becket’s memory, the crimes against people of faith must stop, prisoners of conscience must be released, laws restricting freedom of religion and belief must be repealed, and the vulnerable, the defenseless, and the oppressed must be protected. The tyranny and murder that shocked the conscience of the Middle Ages must never be allowed to happen again. As long as America stands, we will always defend religious liberty.
A society without religion cannot prosper. A nation without faith cannot endure—because justice, goodness, and peace cannot prevail without the grace of God.
At the same time, it’s unnerving to think how diametrically opposed to this view the incoming Biden administration will be. Although he professes to be Catholic, Biden has already indicated he will once again target religious groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor, as the Obama administration did, in an attempt to force such religious orders to participate in state-funded abortion.
And Biden’s soon-to-be vice president, Kamala Harris, is an open anti-Catholic bigot. She infamously imposed an unconstitutional religious test on a nominee for the federal bench in 2018. When Brian Buescher was nominated as a District Court judge, Harris inveighed against him for being a member of the Knights of Columbus, asking, “Were you aware that the Knights of Columbus opposed a woman’s right to choose when you joined the organization?”
Of course, the Knights of Columbus (of which, full disclosure, I’m a member) has no special position or focus on abortion. The charitable organization simply adheres to the Catholic Church’s teaching on abortion, marriage, and everything else. Harris’s obvious implication was that adhering to orthodox Catholic moral teaching somehow renders a person unfit for positions of public trust, such as the federal judiciary.
Aside from this appalling incident, Harris has a long record of going after organizations whose positions are in line with Catholic moral teaching, especially on abortion. As California attorney general, she authorized a raid on the home of David Daleiden of the Center for Medical Progress, which had exposed the illegal trafficking of organs from aborted children by Planned Parenthood.
She supported a California law, since struck down by the Supreme Court, that would have required pro-life pregnancy centers to advise clients on where they could get an abortion. Harris is also a co-sponsor of the Orwellian-named “Equality Act,” which would force Catholic hospitals to perform gender transition surgeries and Catholic schools to embrace transgender ideology in their sports programs, among other violations of religious liberty. Biden, too, has expressed his support for the act.
Under a Biden-Harris administration, it’s not hard to imagine the president and vice president saying, as King Henry II did of Becket, “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?”
American Catholics, and indeed all Christians, should acknowledge how rare it has been to have, in President Trump, a chief executive who seems honestly to care about religious liberty and the rights of conscience. Likewise, we should acknowledge that what’s coming under Biden-Harris will be much different.
It’s not too much to say we should expect persecution of the church. And when it comes we should be ready to say, like Becket, “God is the supreme ruler, above Kings… we ought to obey God rather than men.”