The past century has been witness to many villainous acts committed against the Christian faith in the name of hostile, and often secular, ideologies. Many of these horrors are portrayed in literature and film and with varying degrees of success. However, each in its own way presents a snapshot of the dystopias created when religious freedoms are abrogated. These books and films provide instructive reminders today as organized spiritual faith is attacked in our country by government sanction and abroad by antagonist militias for whom religious pluralism is an abomination.
There are a great number of stories dealing with the Holocaust— perhaps the greatest inhumanity perpetrated against any religious group in history. There are also works that illustrate how government powers have been exerted to the detriment of the Christian faith. The Whiskey Priest in Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, for example, hides his faith and submerges himself in drunken squalor as he runs from both the tenets of his vocation and a government that has outlawed priests in 1930s Mexico. Padre Jose, another priest in Greene’s novel, evades execution through a government-enforced marriage as he is compelled to live off a government pension.
Likewise, the 1960 film The Angel Wore Red depicts the violent aggression deployed against the Roman Catholic Church and its followers during the Spanish Civil War. The Secret Speech, a 2009 thriller by British author Tom Rob Smith, begins with the novel’s flawed and seemingly irredeemable protagonist, Soviet KGB agent Leo Demidov, working undercover to arrest a Russian Orthodox priest and his wife.
In The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn recounts the story of a religious group imprisoned at Solovetsky in 1930. The members of this group considered the Soviet apparatus the “Antichrist” and refused to accept its legitimacy or authority, which included recognizing Soviet currency and passports. The group was sent to a small island in the archipelago where they were told they were required to sign for packages of food delivered there. Within two months the entire group had perished from starvation.
Anne Applebaum, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gulag: A History, writes in her 2012 follow-up, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Europe 1944-1956, that Eastern European Christians were also prey to totalitarian notions. A Saxony evangelical youth group, Christian Endeavor, Applebaum notes, engaged in Bible studies and prayer gatherings during the spring of 1946. Following Soviet guidelines, Saxony authorities quickly shut down Christian Endeavor groups. Applebaum also discusses how religious freedoms were stifled in countries such as Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria:
In some countries, communist authorities even conducted show trials very much along Soviet lines. Eventually the region’s communist parties would attempt to eliminate all remaining organizations; to recruit followers into state-run mass organizations instead; to establish much harsher controls over education; to subvert the Catholic and Protestant churches.
The horrors of the 20th century are hardly foreign to us in the 21st century. Today, Christians and other religious groups are subjected to diasporas, torture and death in Middle Eastern countries. On Good Friday of this year, Father Thomas Uzhunnalil, a Catholic priest, reportedly was crucified in Yemen by Islamic State terrorists.
In the United States, where religious freedom is guaranteed in the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, there are daily challenges to our constitutional rights. Fortunately, thus far nothing has been allowed to proceed in our country along the lines of the Mexico of Graham Greene’s novel, the Spanish Civil War, the Shoah or the nightmares broadcast at a chilling rate from the Middle East.
But America and the West have endured attacks on religion from without and within. The U.S. Supreme Court has rendered its decision on Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and is deliberating at present on Little Sisters of the Poor Home for the Aged v. Burwell. Both cases are significant in the defense of religious freedom in the United States.
Closer to home, we at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty continue our collective sigh of relief after winning our protracted battle with the city of Grand Rapids over alleged taxes owed on our property—a battle clearly prompted by politics rather than legal merits. Religious liberty today as in the past requires extreme vigilance.
Rev. Robert A. Sirico is president and cofounder of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.