Not A Man For This Season

My friend and fellow amateur Tudor Religious History enthusiast Sarah Posner beat me to the punch on this topic, but she’s right: there are some problems with the Catholic Bishops’ decision to link their campaign for what they call “religious liberty” (or more specifically, a broader exemption from insurance regulations they don’t like) to the memory of St. Thomas More, via a “Fortnight for Freedom” series of events next month that begin on More’s feast day (also that of St. John Fisher, another Tudor prelate executed for treason, probably on stronger grounds, by Henry VIII) and conclude on Independence Day.

There are three basic problems raised by the More precedent.

First, as Posner notes, comparing More’s execution to the ignominy of having to indirectly subsidize health insurance for contraception is absurd on its face, and belies the artificial hysteria the Bishops are trying to arouse:

The very idea that providing women with insurance coverage is somehow tantamount to the terror and violence inflicted on both sides in Reformation England—or to the historical cataclysm that was Henry’s schism from Rome—is so absurd I’m stunned as my fingers tap across my keyboard. If we’re going to spend the next five and half months discussing whether Barack Obama is like Henry VIII, well, God help us.

Second, More was battling with Henry VIII over Rome’s spiritual jurisdiction over England’s state church, as opposed to Henry’s claim of Royal Supremacy. I don’t believe the Bishops are arguing the Vatican should control religion in America, and I don’t believe Obama is trying to appoint Bishops, confiscate monastic property, dictate forms of worship, etc. The whole conflict is entirely non-analogous.

And third, St. Thomas More, despite the highly attractive reputation he has for Americans of every or no faith via Robert Bolt’s 1954 play A Man For All Seasons (subsequently made into a 1966 film that won six Oscars), was not exactly an apostle of religious liberty or freedom of conscience. As Henry’s chancellor, he was a very enthusiastic torturer and persecutor of “heretics,” particularly anyone bearing the virus of continental evangelical Protestantism. He was especially renowned for his relentless efforts to secure the execution of William Tyndale, the great evangelical Bible translator, succeeding (according to most accounts) in having Tyndale burned at the stake near Brussels. So far as I am aware, More never recanted of any of these acts; he went to his beheading for what he perceived as orthodoxy, not religious liberty; his protestations in defense of “conscience” were limited to the allegation that he was defying the King by his silence over the Oath of Allegiance.

More’s dubious value as a role model has not, notes Posner, escaped the notice of the Bishops’ would-be evangelical partners in the crusade for “religious liberty:”

The evangelical homeschooling advocate and lawyer, and founder of Patrick Henry College (aka “God’s Harvard”), Michael Farris, wrote a book highly critical of More’s abuse of Tyndale, whom he portrayed as the forerunner of American religious liberty.

If nothing else, the Bishops’ invocation of More shows they need some help with their ecumenical communications. If those fast friends Richard John Neuhaus and Chuck Colson were still around, I doubt this mistake would have been made.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.