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Sex, nuns and martyrs: Why religious freedom matters so much

Theresa Civantos Barber - published on 04/12/21

Why is defending religious liberty so important in today's world?

What happens when the right to religious freedom is slowly eroded? Where do people of faith draw the line when the government wants to regulate how a religion is lived and practiced?

These questions are at the heart of a fascinating talk, “Sex, Nuns and Martyrs: The Relevance of Religious Freedom” (available to watch on Vimeo and Facebook), presented by Montserrat Alvarado. Alvarado is the Vice President and Executive Director of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. She was recently profiled by the Wall Street Journal as “A defender of all religion, on the front lines of America’s culture wars.”

The video is one in a series of OSV Talks, which shine a light on creative means of evangelization, springing from the wisdom and deep prayer that energize these approaches. The talks, which are similar to TED Talks but with a Catholic focus, are free and available for anyone to watch at OSVTalks.com.

In her OSV Talk, Alvarado explains the work of defending religious freedom through the examples of martyrs who have given their very lives for their beliefs.

“Martyrs die for big things and for small things that have big consequences,” she said. “Seventeenth-century Christians in Japan were given a choice: gruesome torture or stepping on an icon of the Church,” on the face of Christ or of his Blessed Mother.

“The Japanese peasants chose death,” Alvarado said. “The Little Sisters chose to fight, and so have I.”

She’s referring to the Little Sisters of the Poor, whom the Becket Fund represented in perhaps the most widely known religious freedom case of recent years. The Department of Health & Human Services tried to force the Little Sisters and others to provide services in their health plans that violated their religious beliefs.

The Becket Fund team secured two separate Supreme Court victories for religious liberty protecting the Little Sisters of the Poor. The order can continue serving the elderly poor and dying without threat of millions of dollars in fines.

Martyrs give a glorious witness to the truth through their courage and goodness. But most Christians today will not be martyrs. Instead, Christians are called to advocate and fight for their faith, Alvarado said.

“I do think we’re called to die for our faith, and I pray to God that we’ll all be ready the day that that knock comes on our door for martyrdom,” she said. “But that’s not what we’re being called to do today. Today we’re being called to live for it.”

Living for your faith, and for the right to practice it freely, is Alvarado’s life work. She shares much of what she’s learned about religious freedom in her talk.

There are three key reasons, among others, that religious freedom is so eminently worth defending. “There’s a good reason, a better reason, and the best reason,” Alvarado said.

1The good reason

“The good reason is that religious freedom is really important to defend from the government and its blind spots.” On top of that, “It’s really easy to win cases against government bureaucrats with really poor reasoning.”

2The better reason

“The better reason is that no religion is an island. If you don’t have religious liberty, I don’t have religious liberty.”

3The best reason

“The best reason, and this is really where the fight is today, is that we are fighting over religious freedom because it’s people who believe in nothing, nihilists really, who want to attack the idea of believing in anything at all. And we have to work together, people who believe in anything at all, to protect this important human right.”

As Americans, religious freedom is a foundational bedrock of our society. “Our founders, when they enumerated our inalienable rights, named religious freedom first,” she said.

What we believe reveals who we are. Religious freedom includes and affects our identities and most deeply held beliefs.

That’s why it’s so important to protect this fundamental right. Alvarado’s reflections, drawn from her extensive experience in this field, are a useful and captivating resource for anyone interested in defending religious liberty.


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OSVReligious Freedom
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