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Félicité de Lamennais: The French writer and priest believed that religious liberty had to be a reciprocal right

Religious liberty is for losers. Only when you're denied it do you really gauge its value. Only then do you truly understand the preciousness of the right to practise your faith freely and publicly.

Right now American Christians increasingly feel they are losing. With the media stoking the culture wars, many people of faith, pulverised by hostile campaign groups and feeling betrayed by the government, think their whole way of life is under attack. The atmosphere has changed; that's their sense of it. It has turned hostile, and quickly. A florist in Washington state and a baker in Colorado have been sued for refusing to arrange flowers and bake cakes for same-sex marriages. In their defence they appealed to religious liberty. Why? Because religious liberty is for losers. Last month, the California state university system, comprising 450,000 students on 23 campuses, banned access to Christian student ministries for not allowing non-Christian leaders. This past summer President Obama signed an executive order on LGBT discrimination among federal contractors, sweeping aside the historic exemption for religious organisations.

The apparent novelty of these trends can seem intimidating. It's therefore worth framing this set of issues — culture wars, legal battles, clashes of rights — by seeking an historical perspective on the intriguing dynamic that communities learn something profound about liberty via the concrete experiences of suffering its loss. Iraq is a case in point, with the fate of the Shias under Saddam Hussein and more recently the Sunnis, not to mention Christians and other minorities. But turning to Europe, modern Catholicism supplies perhaps the most dramatic example. How did an institution adamantly opposed to religious liberty in 1800 become one of its leading advocates by 2000?

A profound comment by an important but much neglected Catholic historian is a good launchpad. After founding the first Catholic democratic party in 1919, the Partito Popolare Italiano, Sicilian priest Luigi Sturzo was outmaneuvered by Mussolini and fled to England. There, in 1939, he published his landmark book Church and State. At one point he proffers this reflection on the relationship between modern Catholicism and religious freedom. At the beginning of the 1800s, the Catholic Church "had been against the introduction of political liberties". Yet "in the following period of veiled or open separation and strife the Church was compelled by events to demand these liberties for herself . . . if she would carry on her religious activity". He continues:

But liberties are coherent or they cannot exist; if they were denied to the Church as the adversary of the State, they would soon be denied to all who were considered as adversaries of the State, till they became the monopoly of the Government . . . If on the other hand the Church demands them for herself, she admits or supposes that such liberties are general for all.

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