St. Thomas Becket, Martyr for Religious Freedom

Today, December 29, is the Memorial of St. Thomas Becket, the 12th century Archbishop of Canterbury and martyr of religious freedom. Today is also the 850th anniversary of Becket’s martyrdom. He was assassinated in his cathedral church on December 29, 1170. President Donald Trump issued a proclamation recognizing the anniversary as an important reminder of the value of religious freedom.

St. Thomas Becket’s martyrdom was the direct result of his conflict with King Henry II of England. It’s a long and complicated story, but it basically came down to a conflict over the rights of the Church and the clergy over against the authority of the State. Thomas was a thorn in Henry’s side on the matter, and Henry, in a fit of frustration and within earshot of some of his knights, allegedly muttered the words, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?” Henry’s knights interpreted this as the king’s desire to dispatch the archbishop and promptly made their way to Canterbury, where they presented Thomas with an ultimatum: recognized the king’s authority over the Church or die where you stand. St. Thomas supposedly answered, “For the name of Jesus and the protection of the Church, I am ready to embrace death.” Embrace death he did, as the knights quickly struck him down within the walls of Canterbury Cathedral.

Since then, St. Thomas Becket has been recognized as a hero of religious freedom over against the machinations of oppressive regimes. The struggle between Church and State remains today, even in the United States. In too many countries the struggle results in the suppression of freedoms or even in death. Every year, the U. S. State Department presents to Congress a report on the state of religious freedom around the globe. The most recent report covers the time from January 1 to December 31, 2019.

Believers in the United States have little fear of imprisonment or death for practicing their faith. Even still, the State has, at times, used its considerable power to limit the freedoms of people of faith or even to destroy their reputations and livelihoods. Most are familiar with the cases of florists or bakers who refuse to have their talents purchased for the purpose of celebrating same-sex weddings. President-elect Joe Biden has promised to remove any accommodation to religious organizations who do not want to pay for abortifacients or contraceptives through their insurance plans or through third parties, thus opening up the Little Sisters of the Poor and others to more lawsuits attempting to force them to provide these medications. Concerns have been raised by advocates of religious liberty over Xavier Bacerra, Biden’s choice to head the Department of Health and Human Services. Bacerra is not an advocate for religious freedom, but regularly sides with the State whenever their is a conflict over religious liberty and attempts by lawmakers to impose their will on religious believers, such as Bacerra’s insistence that those with religious objections to participating in abortions or sex-altering surgeries be denied exemptions.

Governors and mayors across the country have been imposing limitations on the number of worshipers who can attend services during the pandemic. Most churches and synagogues have been compliant and have followed strict safety guidelines. However, when more severe restrictions are placed on houses of worship than on other businesses or institutions, one must wonder why. The courts have been deciding in favor of the religious groups over what appear to be random limits imposed on places of worship. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, in a rather scathing critique of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s restrictions against churches that were much more restrictive than those against “essential” businesses said, “It is time — past time — to make plain that, while the pandemic poses many grave challenges, there is no world in which the Constitution tolerates color-coded executive edicts that reopen liquor stores and bike shops but shutter churches, synagogues and mosques.”

If you are interested in Church-State affairs and the protection of religious liberty against the encroachment of civil authority, I recommend you check out Becketlaw.org. Becket, named after the saintly Archbishop of Canterbury, is an organization that fights for the religious liberty of those who need protection against legislators, governors, city councils, and others eager to impose their power on religious believers by limiting the free exercise of religion as protected in the U. S. Constitution.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.

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