Is freedom of expression and religion out of fashion?


A baptism in Connecticut a few days after Christmas was the opportunity to jump in the minivan with my six youngest children for a road trip. We left a day earlier to visit Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Our first stop was the Norman Rockwell Museum.

The beloved American illustrator is best known for the everyday life cover illustrations he created for The Saturday Evening Post magazine over a span of nearly five decades.

The 323 blankets – displayed on the lower level of the museum – capture the innocence of youth and the pleasure of the ordinary. They portray a Central America of honest traders, local townspeople and mischievous boys. Most of it is gone now; maybe he never really existed. But, even today, we suspend our disbelief because Mr. Rockwell’s inspiration was so fresh and his artistry so remarkable.

Mr. Rockwell celebrated all the freedoms implicit in our Constitution – both those cherished in the 21st century, such as racial equality, and those that are forsaken.

On the main level of the museum, I found something that particularly resonated. Mr. Rockwell was inspired by Franklin Roosevelt’s State of the Union address in 1941. Mr. Roosevelt presented the reasons America was involved in World War II. He did so with reference to universal freedoms. He named four: freedom of expression; the freedom of everyone to worship God in their own way, anywhere in the world; freedom to want; and free from fear. Mr. Rockwell took these ideals and developed them.

I stood in the center of the showroom, struck by how these four freedoms have been tested recently.

It is undeniable that the pandemic has strained economic and emotional freedom. Lots of people are missing. Many are afraid. As for the other two freedoms – freedom of speech and the freedom to worship God – the situation is dire.

Mr. Rockwell illustrates freedom of speech by showing a worker standing up to speak at a town hall meeting. The man, dressed in a worn leather jacket, is surrounded by his well-dressed neighbors. Mr. Rockwell had indeed just witnessed such a scene; he stuck his own face among the townspeople. The point is, in his painting you can see that no one is going to stop the speaker from expressing his unpopular opinion.

I immediately thought of Scott Smith, a 48-year-old plumber and father of a girl from Loudoun County, Va., Who was sexually assaulted in her high school bathroom by a “gender fluid” boy in the girls’ bathroom. Smith opposed the school board’s new policies on the inclusion of women. He wanted the public to know about his daughter’s assault. But unlike Mr. Rockwell’s neighbor, Mr. Smith was arrested and dragged out of his local school board meeting before he could finish.

Attorney General Merrick Garland, instead of reaffirming freedom of speech for affected parents like Mr Smith and others, issued a memorandum this fall ordering authorities to respond to what he called a “worrying spike of harassment, intimidation and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers and staff who participate in the essential work of running public schools in our country. The FBI, in response, has established a process to track parents who speak out against ideologically motivated teachers and school board members.

Have we really become a country where parents cannot stand up and voice certain concerns without looking over their shoulders? There were a lot of these countries in the 1940s, but they were our enemies.

An even more aggressive attack on religious freedom is underway. When places of worship were targeted in 2020 by pandemic-related restrictions in New York City, the Supreme Court ultimately intervened. “Members of this Court are not experts in public health, and we must respect the judgment of those with particular expertise and responsibility in this region. … But even in the event of a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten ”, explained the Court. Despite such clear guidelines, politicians in Maine and New York state refuse to protect conscientious rights in health care worker immunization mandates.

And the demands of liberal ideologies, some of them appallingly non-negotiable, are expected to persist well beyond the pandemic. It’s true that last year a unanimous Supreme Court confirmed that Philadelphia’s Catholic foster care program was in line with traditional religious teaching on marriage. But it was only a victory in a war that we could end up losing. Faith groups and individuals now face unprecedented pressure to comply with broad anti-discrimination policies as a precondition for serving the common good.

When Mr. Rockwell’s hugely popular Four Freedoms series was published, Time Magazine described it as “a loving image of what a great people like to imagine themselves to be.” This was unmistakably true in 1943. But, in 2022, do the same ideals still really capture our imaginations? Have some freedoms become too awkward and out of fashion in the public mind to continue to be defended? And if so, will we be doomed to see them slip away?

• Andrea Picciotti-Bayer is the director of the Consciousness Project.


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