Never have the US bishops been so unified and fully engaged over one issue in this nation. But the HHS mandate was the bridge too far in this administration’s push to expand its control over the nation and its citizens. ‘It put our usual work on steroids’, one bishop told me on radio. It also ramped up the nation’s Catholics and their involvement in public policy like nothing has since the civil rights movement.

Some Catholics complain that it took this long for the bishops to engage crucial social policy battles and ask where they were when this or that happened, naming any number of issues. But they are here and now, an impressive force, and they’re gathering momentum and strength. If unpaid bills of the past have come due now, they are being reckoned with at present.

The Fortnight for Freedoom has begun. Because freedom is under siege.

What are the bishops up to with this “great national campaign of teaching and witness for religious liberty”? In keeping with their responsibilities as shepherds of the faith, they are calling their people—and anyone else who pays heed—to a heightened awareness of the centrality of religious freedom for any civilized society that claims to recognize the equal dignity of human beings.

But why now? Why should the bishops pick this season for a campaign of public education and advocacy on the subject of religious liberty? For religious-freedom watchers, that’s an easy question to answer. Under President Obama, religious freedom has been directly attacked when it has not been simply neglected or disregarded.

Count the ways. Several are listed there.

The Obama administration, especially with its HHS mandate, poses the largest and most immediate threat to religious freedom in America today. But in the Easter week statement of their Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Liberty, titled “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” the bishops also notice other threats to which we should be alert. Among them are ill-considered state laws on immigration that would make it illegal for churches to assist poor people, or even celebrate the sacraments with them, if they are illegal immigrants…

In short, the defense of religious freedom is more needed now than it has been for many years, and the confrontations between freedom and authority run deeply through layers of other political debates, over sexuality, marriage, health-care policy, discrimination law, humanitarian relief, and foreign affairs. New confrontations are bound to occur as long as our political system fails to restore and preserve a proper understanding of religious freedom.

Such a restorative effort is the purpose of the Fortnight for Freedom. As Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, chairman of the Ad Hoc Committee, said at the bishops’ annual conference in Atlanta on June 13, the Fortnight “is not about parties, candidates, or elections . . . it is about the issue of religious freedom.” Religious freedom knows no party. The bishops are responding to an aggressive secularism that happens to be led by a Democratic administration. “Responding” is the key word here, for the bishops are not starting a fight, but neither are they backing away from one.

Right on.

Archbishop Charles Chaput, author of Render Unto Caesar among other credits, says religious liberty is “an urgent concern” at this moment in US history, and sums up the issue “in five simple points.”

First, religious freedom is a cornerstone of the American experience. This is so obvious that once upon a time, nobody needed to say it. But times have changed. So it’s worth recalling that Madison, Adams, Washington, Hamilton, Franklin, Jefferson–in fact, nearly all the American founders–saw religious faith as vital to the life of a free people. Liberty and happiness grow organically out of virtue. And virtue needs grounding in religious faith…

Here’s my second point: Freedom of religion is more than freedom of worship. The right to worship is a necessary but not sufficient part of religious liberty. Christian faith requires community. It begins in worship, but it also demands preaching, teaching, and service. It’s always personal but never private. And it involves more than prayer at home and Mass on Sunday–though these things are vitally important. Real faith always bears fruit in public witness and public action. Otherwise it’s just empty words.

The founders saw the value of publicly engaged religious faith because they experienced its influence themselves. They created a nation designed in advance to depend on the moral convictions of religious believers, and to welcome their active role in public life.

Here’s my third point: Threats against religious freedom in our country are not imaginary. They’re happening right now. They’re immediate, serious, and real. Earlier this year religious liberty advocates won a big Supreme Court victory in the 9-0 Hosanna-Tabor v EEOC decision. That’s the good news. Here’s the bad news: What’s stunning in that case is the disregard for religious freedom shown by the government’s arguments against the Lutheran church and school.

And Hosanna-Tabor is not an isolated case. It belongs to a pattern of government coercion that includes the current administration’s HHS mandate; interfering with the conscience rights of medical providers and private employers, as well as individual citizens; and attacks on the policies, hiring practices, and tax statuses of religious charities and ministries.

It’s amazing that about 11 days after the US Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Hosanna-Tabor that government has no right to define religious ministry, the government announced the HHS mandate.

Here’s my fourth point: Unless we work hard to keep our religious liberty, we’ll lose it. It’s already happening in other developed countries like Britain and Canada. The U.S. Constitution is a great document–historically unique for its fusion of high ideals with the realism of very practical checks and balances. But in the end, it’s just an elegant piece of paper. In practice, nothing guarantees our freedoms except our willingness to fight for them. That means fighting politically and through the courts, without tiring and without apologies.

That’s certainly happening now.

Here’s my fifth and final point: Politics and the courts are important. But our religious freedom ultimately depends on the vividness of our own Christian faith–in other words, how deeply we believe it, and how honestly we live it. Religious liberty is an empty shell if the spiritual core of a people is weak. Or to put it more bluntly, if people don’t believe in God, religious liberty isn’t a value. That’s the heart of the matter…

Religious liberty isn’t a privilege granted by the state. It’s our birthright as children of God. And even the worst bigotry can’t kill it in the face of a believing people. But if we value it and want to keep it, then we need to become people worthy of it. Which means we need to change the way we live–radically change, both as individual Catholics and as the Church.

Great message. Read the whole thing. And the other links. This is not going to end on the Fourth of July.

Sheila Liaugminas

Sheila Liaugminas is an Emmy award-winning Chicago-based journalist in print and broadcast media. Her writing and broadcasting covers matters of faith, culture, politics and the media....