Clerical Freedom and Academic Freedom

As my readers will have heard, the recently re-elected mayor of Houston, Annise Parker, tried to subpoena the sermons and e-mailed messages of various Christian clergymen in the city in early October only to reverse course following public outrage. Miss Parker is a lesbian living in a pseudogamous relationship with another woman. The clergymen had cried out against a city ordinance declaring public bathrooms to be fair game for everybody, regardless of their sex, so long as they “identify” as belonging to the sex for which the bathroom is designated. Rumors that signs for the bathrooms will feature a stick figure and a question mark have proved unfounded.

Nevertheless, in Houston, a strange man may enter the ladies’ room to squat in the stall next to a little girl, and a strange woman may enter the men’s room to stand, or to try to stand, next to a little boy, though I daresay the boy will have the upper hand at it. The pastors protested, retaining a residue of decency and a sense of the ridiculous. So the municipal apparatchiks went after them. Hell hath no fury.

It’s odd to think that all those boys died at Normandy and Iwo Jima so that men of God could have their sermons confiscated by the government, lest they dare to preach against ambiguous bathrooms. But politics, as they say, makes strange headfellows, and perhaps some of those soldiers now rest easier in their graves, knowing that if they did not succeed in bringing liberty to the world, at least they brought the blessings of common privies back home. Nothing in this world is ever perfect.

The fig leaf in this case is the fact that the opponents were clergymen, speaking in their churches. Let us pause while the frisson of terror passes. They were clergymen, speaking in their churches. They were not a local chapter of the Teamsters, rigging an election. They were not members of the American Bar Association, devising new ways to cover the land like locusts. They were not even nurses for Planned Parenthood, toting bags marked “Biohazard” to the dumpster. They were clergymen, speaking in their churches. One can readily see what machine politics, endless litigation, and dead babies have to do with the common good. But clergymen?

That they were Christian ministers makes the matter all the more baffling. They read and they preach the words of their Founder, who commands them to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, to comfort the suffering and rebuke the sinner; to condone no evil, to bear with much, and forgive all. They read and they preach, “Whatever you do to the least of these, that you do to me.” They read and they preach, “Let your light shine before men, that they may bless your Father in heaven.” They read and they preach, “For this reason a man shall leave his mother and father and cleave unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh.” They read and they preach, “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who treat you with spite.” They read and they preach that if by their deeds they deny their Lord before men, He will deny them before their Father.

What could all of that possibly have to do with the common good, and how we are to live with one another? What could it possibly have to do with inculcating the difficult virtues of generosity, self-denial, compassion, purity, chastity, integrity, fidelity, humility, and patience?

What makes matters worse for the errant men of God is that their opening their mouths—except to clear their throats, to utter pious platitudes, to announce next week’s pancake brunch, and to congratulate the Elwoods on their fortieth anniversary—is thought to be flatly unconstitutional. Here we need to take care. The Constitution has nothing to say about what a churchman might talk about. It isn’t there. Some people are so bold as to suggest that the freedom to exercise your religion is just the freedom of speech and the press in special terms. For exercise means more than to ride a hobbyhorse. Latin exercitus: army. Exercise is, in its proper signification, a military drill. It is vigorous and public.

What our most astute scholars have relied on is not the plain language of the Constitution, but a hidden Constitution of the Constitution, a constitutional flatus, emanating from the penumbras. Those penumbras are to be found not where the public words were crafted, but in halls, coat rooms, and outbuildings. It is noted that a scrawled comment in a privy near to Independence Hall reads, in a hand remarkably like that of Thomas Jefferson, beneath Sally is a saucy sl-t, the message, Parson John has the pox. This refers to Reverend John Witherspoon, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. The implications for our body politic are clear.

Yet the clergymen protest. They wonder why they must check their human rights at the door of the church on Sunday. But they forget their special status as a non-profit organization. They do not in fact take profits, but if they dare to meddle with the common good, they will have to be considered as a business, like the gas station across the street. They must then bare the arm for the federal bloodletters. And the members of their congregation who donate to their church may no longer claim their donations as charitable. For charity has nothing to do with the common good, either. So long as the church remains as harmless as a quilting bee for old ladies, inoffensive and ineffectual, you may claim that your thousand dollars is charitable, but if your churchmen speak out about the common good, if they preach what they believe will bring something like peace in this world and beatitude in the next, then your thousand dollars is not charitable. 

There is, however, a farther complication, something that no one has yet pointed out. The land is filled to the top of its manholes with non-profit organizations whose members engage in political speech all the time, and who gladly welcome billions of dollars in charitable contributions. They are called schools and colleges, and they, unlike the churches, receive additional billions of dollars from governments at all levels, directly and indirectly. Those moneys are bled from ordinary taxpayers.

There’s a professor at my college who regularly turns his course in psychology into a vaudeville stage for liberal sermons, of no relevance to the subject he is supposed to teach, much to the irritation of his paying customers, the students. But he has academic freedom, which means that he does as he pleases, and laughs as he fleeces. Multiply him by a hundred thousand. Whole academic departments are partisan playgrounds, paid for by John and Jane Doe. The same goes for the schools. Anyone who says to Miss Pedigree, “You actually have no business teaching American history as a screed against your favorite political enemies,” proxy agents of government such as the NEA and the ACLU would rush to her defense, crying, freedom, freedom!

And think of the students. No one is compelled to go to church. But millions of children are compelled to go to school, and if they end up with Miss Pedigree, that’s tough luck for them. They must grin and bear it; just as if we could imagine the leaders of Planned Parenthood hauled by law into a cathedral every Sunday to hear the message that when they kill babies it is babies they are killing. People in church may leave, but children in school cannot, and students in universities have not all that much more liberty, practically speaking, than they did when they sat smoldering in the sixth grade. The colleges run the job turnpike, and that is a comma, not a decimal point, that you see on the sign for their toll.

So we may wonder, “Why should a clergyman have less liberty than a professor? His audience is not constrained to be there. He and his like spend most of their time lifting the minds of their congregation to God. They run soup kitchens, homeless shelters, homes for unwed mothers, day care centers, and schools. They preach the noble words of Jesus. They attempt to restrain by divine adjuration the pride and the passion of man. They may spend no more than one or two Sundays in a year even mentioning what is going on in the city council. They do not take their salaries from the taxpayers. The ecclesiae publicae are established, but they are not. Is that why a clergyman’s sermons may be subpoenaed, but not a professor’s syllabus, or a sixth grade pedagogue’s lesson plans? Why should a clergyman enjoy less liberty than a professor?”

Anthony Esolen


Professor Esolen is a teaching fellow and writer in residence at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. Dr. Esolen is a regular contributor to Crisis Magazine and the author of many books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery Press, 2008); Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books, 2010) and Reflections on the Christian Life (Sophia Institute Press, 2013). His most recent books are Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching (Sophia Institute Press, 2014); Defending Marriage (Tan Books, 2014); Life Under Compulsion (ISI Books, 2015); and Out of the Ashes (Regnery, 2017).

  • kentgeordie

    Wonderful stuff. But why is it you writing this rather than your bishop? If they would lead us, some would fall away, but many would follow.

    While I am no big fan of ‘ecumenical’ activity, the designation of public toilets is surely one topic on which the leaders of all faith communities can legitimately cooperate.

    • ForChristAlone

      I’m not sure you can get bishops on board with regard to this bathroom matter. And besides, their minds are made for more lofty matters like immigration and global warming. Brrrr!!

      • Hey, the new term is “climate change”. Obviously you aren’t reading the Encyclicals of the High Church of the Secular Elite.

  • Jesus preached that we should not condone evil? I seem to have forgotten the reference, but I have been losing that argument with liberals as of late.

  • stpetric

    “Pseudogamous”! I like that!

  • Paddy

    When a President of the United States starts chasing the Little Sisters of the Poor down courthouse hallways….Houston, we’ve got a problem. Who voted for these Leftist tyrants, besides some 43% of practicing Roman Catholics?

    • kainosktisis

      Uh, I didn’t vote for them, & that was before, during, and after my conversion to the Catholic branch of the Christian faith. Sorry. I am conservative. The current president’s politics did not appeal to me in the least. Anyone with a shred of decency would’ve seen that his policies for the most part were AGAINST people of faith and the issue of conscience would take a backseat to politics meant to satisfy groups who didn’t & still don’t have America’s best at heart.

    • AugustineThomas

      I agree with you completely.
      For the record, “Roman Catholic” is a term invented by Anglicans to slander the One True Church as just another “denomination” equivalent to any Protestant sect. We’re Catholics, aka Christians. No other term is proper.

  • Anne Hendershott

    Great article Professor Esolen. Providence College is blessed to have you teaching there. Thank you for fighting the good fight.

  • AcceptingReality

    I think it would be great if a handful of those clergymen were priests in my diocese. Would love to hear some homilies that are relevant to the moral issues of our day!

  • Cindy

    When I read your articles, I have hope that all is not lost because I know that there is at least one guy left who can tease the obvious truth out of our chaotic information highway.

  • BillinJax

    This and many other thoughtful articles we find these days in Crisis which are also “insightful” should eventually bring one to understand that liberalism today IS a religion and their followers have been well trained in our public schools and colleges for years. But since they, through the militant media they posses, are in control of the political vocabulary and set the rules of engagement in any so-called debate of the issues the charade continues in the dim light provided by the very thing many are recognizing as Clerical Capitulation in the name of relativism. There is a Crisis of Light in our world and thank God we have among us a few torches like the professor.

  • John Albertson

    Few news reports mentioned that Miss Parker is a lesbian in a narcissistic sexual union. Perversion invariably tends to fascism in order to silence any voice that breaks the illusion of abnormality being normal. It is the same old story of the Naked Emperor would like to have muzzled the little boy who told the truth.

  • St JD George

    It is good to shine the light on these stories so all will know, but I expect most that come here already know so there is an aspect of preaching to the choir. With the growing anti Christian forces becoming ever more emboldened and aggressive it would seem that what is needed now is more discussion about how we can go about making a hard push on the rudder to turn this ship around. I think there is a dimension to this which stems from our own timidity and being bold in our faith in our faith communities but much less so in our secular world. Some of that is legitimate fear in a hostile environment especially with a complicit and coercive government which can inflict much harm. Activism may be an unpleasant way to describe it because there is much negative association, but our priests, bishops, and yes, even our politicians will feel more emboldened if they hear from us rather than silently stewing over things. In that regard I’m not suggesting Prof Anthony views things any differently, or most of you here, just venting and expressing my own frustration. As James also discussed in his article today, culture wars are unavoidable and if we want to win the battle to save souls then we need to adapt a little more of a warrior mind set.

  • Elat

    well written. The censorship now committed against Christian beliefs in every sphere is astounding and especially in light of the brainwashing these same people are doing in schools. The Anti-Christ is here.

    • Paddy

      The Anti-Christ is Pro-Choice, too.

      • Elat


  • Guest

    I live here in Houston and this represents another attack by a far left politician on Christians. They had no problem going to these same Churches to ask for support in the election (any election) but they want to decide who can and will speak from the pulpit and then only to deliver approved messages. I want Christians, and specifically the Catholic Church, to stand up and stand for something again. We have become too wishy-washy and it is not working. I applaud these ministers and hope they continue the struggle.

    • St JD George

      Are there any mosque’s there in Houston? I didn’t read where she demanded any Imam’s turn over their notes. She wouldn’t dare or CAIR would be all over her and call for head on a platter. What does that tell you. Nothing, other than they fear one (or are ignorant of) but not the other. We don’t need to instill fear (except in the Lord), but we needn’t be pacifists to be led to slaughter either. That would be a rather “lukewarm” response, at best.

      • kentgeordie

        “We needn’t be pacifists to be led to slaughter.”
        Where is it written that Christians may not kick ass? They did it in the Old Testament. We should do it too. These gay activists are just spoilt children who need and deep down want a grown-up to say, Stop!

        • St JD George

          Yesterday’s reading was testimony to that, detesting the lukewarm. It seems to me that collectively we(the large number that identify themselves as Christians) have been more lukewarm than hot of late.

        • Point of order, the Israelites kicked butt. There were no Christians in the OT.

      • kimP

        Only those suing the city would be included. If you file a lawsuit, you are subject to discovery of relevant information. There were no Muslim clerics suing the city, so, no none were included. The ministered involved are suing the city, if you are suing someone you can expect to be served as part of discovery.

  • Paul

    Religious freedom or freedom to worship is by all intentents and purposes killed off by the current Obama administration. Worse still, this disease is spreading to the rest of western civilisation. Who could have guessed the US would be the first country to comprehensively destroy Christianity.

  • ColdStanding

    Kneeling on pillows?! Argh! Face palm.

    • Micha Elyi

      Better pillows for Christ than kneepads for Clinton (and his successors).

  • John O’Neill

    Let us be honest, Anthony, when the American government and or American culture tells the so called Christian pastors to roll over and play dead, they usually do. In France , not a particularly religious nation, the Leftwing government pushed homosexual marriage and homosexual adoption down the throats of the average Frenchman and the streets broke out in riots as a million French demonstrators rushed into the streets. The French socialists government had to send armed police into the streets to attack the demonstrators. When the Leftwing American government through its corrupted judiciary announces to the entire nation that everyone must now accept homosexual marriage or face the wrath of the limp wristed legal profession, the brave American pastors and their flocks simply comply because they have been taught that the American government is their god and always has been their god. Their favorite hymn is the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” which basically deifies the central American government and breaths fire and brimstone at anyone who does not knuckle under it strong arm rule. The Americans firmly believe that they have built the biblical “city on the hill” in their country, not realizing that the city on the hill does not exist on the present earth but is meant for the next world. The much maligned Vladmir Putin would no allow this in his country so the American State department under the Clinton and Kerry, two leading secularists, have targeted him for destruction. If the American pastors want to continue to play this game which portrays them as victims to the government which they totally support and teach their congregations to worship, so be it. Nolite confidere in principibus.

    • Robert

      You obviously, John, have a very negative view on American people & American pastors. It sounds to me that you have never visit a church or participated in any kind of Holy Orders. So which school are you teaching in?

    • craig

      Let’s be fair here. Nobody, but nobody demonstrates in the streets like the French. That’s why they’re on their fifth Republic since the Revolution (with one Restoration, two Empires, and a Nazi puppet regime in between). Never mind upending civilization or persecuting Christianity, the French will call a general strike and start burning cars if someone proposes a return to the 40-hour work week.

      • John O’Neill

        My point is that at least they reacted to the destruction of the family and in their culture the family, le pere et la mere, are essential even though they may not follow the moral norms of traditional marriage. One social critic once remarked that in Europe Christianity is an inch wide and a mile deep; in America Christianity is mile wide and an inch deep; interesting observation.

      • jeremiah_methusela

        Torching cars is very popular in France. Averaged over the year, well over 100 go up in flames every day, or rarher, night. Precise figures are hard to obtain, as the politicians are not very proud of this statistic. On New Year’s Eve, the figure rockets up to over 1000. It is surmised that it arises from boredom.

  • Catholic A-ha Fan

    Had a history Prof who was supposed to be teaching history but instead went on a tirade against those who don’t believe in abortion, pleading with under 18 year old girls in the room to remember that it is their duty to get rid of problem pregnancies and to actively condemn crazy religious nut jobs who would dare speak the truths about life, death and abstinence. I tried to confront her but she turned on her heel regarding me as a piece of dirt. She had TENURE and knew that I could do nothing to silence the filth coming out of her mouth. Job for life is what keeps people like her in front of our kid’s classrooms ready to undo all the good we parents try to do to make our kids into decent human beings who will serve the world instead of actively living to destroy it. Hurt my heart to know that she was allowed to say what she pleased but I was not allowed to disagree and stand up for my beliefs. I walked out but the young girls stayed, their parents oblivious to what they had paid for.

    Blessings Mary Martinez, Sacramento Ca

    • ForChristAlone

      I would have made an effort to evangelize every single one of those fellow students outside of class – helping to put the lie to the “professor’s” attempt at indoctrination. You needn’t confront someone like this teacher on her own turf; do it on turf that is not under her sole control.

  • John Albertson

    What a counter-productive “photo-op.” Are these clergymen arthritic? If you want to offer your souls and bodies in witness to God, you might at least for a few minutes be able to do so without pillows to kneel on.

  • kelso

    There is no hate that compares to the hate of sodomites. They are filled with diabolic vitriol. They seethe with hatred not so much against Christianity (which is a force but not a person) but against Jesus personally — although they would never admit that. After all they are liars like the devil. They are on a crusade to obliterate the teaching of Jesus. It is Him that they hate. Because it is Him that their father the devil hates.

  • KimP

    The writer left out the key fact that this subpoena was in response to a lawsuit brought by the ministers against the city. This is standard in the discovery phase when both parties seek all the possible relevant information pertaining to the lawsuit. Lawyers always seek as broad a discovery as possible a discovery. They later agreed to narrow this request. So not such a big deal and not a inquisition.
    The ministered sued the city first, thus, opening themselves up for discovery.

    • Tony

      It was a brazen effort to punish and intimidate. And it is not a new thing in this country, unfortunately.

    • Tony

      The ministers sued the city for breaking the city’s charter, when Parker changed the rules ex post facto, in order to disqualify the petition to put the ordinance to a referendum.

      What then is to be “discovered”? The action in the case has to do with the mayor’s office, AFTER the signatures were gathered. What the ministers said in their sermons or in their e-mails in, say, September, is of no consequence, since the action under scrutiny is the mayor’s, afterwards, and in a different context. Suppose A, let us say Norm Coleman, sues B, let us say Al Franken, for illicit vote-sifting and vote-disqualifying after the election. Of what possible relevance can it be to demand campaign speeches by Coleman in October?

      The subpoenas were issued to oppress. They were meant to be vindictive. The message: Don’t DARE bring us to court, or we will EXPOSE you, or threaten to destroy your non-profit status.

  • Billy Bagbom

    Anthony: I try to read whatever you write, because you are a coherent thinker and a really good writer. But this kind of talk could get you into real trouble.

  • AugustineThomas

    A nation that worships the Constitution, a flawed document created by unoriginal slave-owners who were mediocre thinkers, is bound to fail. It already has failed.

    • John Albertson

      Name one country that has better foundational documents.

      • AugustineThomas

        This country got rich because it managed to bring most of an entire, resource-rich continent under its control. It has nothing to do with the Constitution.
        The height of the West was when the Church was rightly considered to be a higher authority than secular powers and secular powers were deferential to it.
        All of the ideas that the Founders imitated came from that period. They were not original in any way, they just happened, as I said, to have nearly an entire continent to put many of those ideas into play.

  • Vinny

    So let’s review — an instructor at a Catholic university taught material that is contrary to the teachings of the Catholic Church and when a Catholic student brought this information to the attention of Catholic administrators – the student was the one who got rebuked.
    Marquette U.

  • Shere Khan

    were it possible to experience ‘internal’ freedom, external freedom would be irrelevant;

    “if your child asks for bread-internal freedom, would you give him a stone-external freedom”?

    the Romans imprisoned(externally) Peter but when he became enlightened-suddenly understood, he just walked out-internal freedom.

    if your freedom can be taken away it neither is, nor was, yours.-yet I imprison myself, or passively allow myself to be imprisoned, and as the years have gone by I have become accustomed to, or actually enjoy it, but was not*born* in prison, or was I?

    Cheap *word* freedom, but *real* freedom very expensive-much suffering to be paid: John 12:24:”Verily I say unto you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed,but if it dies*, it produces many seeds”(there and then-internal freedom)

    Mr. bar-Joseph was clearly a hard man who hit people with the the sword of truth, without mercy,but also had a delightful sense of humour; as Thomas- His beloved skeptic relates: His pupils asked him if it pleased god that men were circumcised, and wonderfully funnily He tells them: “if it pleased god that men were circumcised they would be BORN circumcised.”

    the gospel of Thomas is well worth reading as is the gospel of Mary Magdalene.

    you can’t get harder than:” lord, i would follow thee but first let me go bury my father, to which-if the translation and the account be correct, Mr. bar-Joseph said:” let the dead bury their dead”.

    I’m no christian because I am not able to be one, but I delight in His refreshing truthfulness and marvellous humour.

    I, I’ve met many a being that ‘claimed’ to be christian but can count the number of more or less ‘real’ Christians on the fingers of one hand ; oddly enough, the real McCoy were what-is-called, but self-evidently is not, Roman catholic flavoured, and that coming from a being indoctrinated into the English conservative party at prayer-otherwise known as the Church of a small child I had a very real love of what little I understood of Jesus,but pretty quickly understood that the whole Christianity business was a complete fraud and involved only lying, both to oneself and the world at large;I have no way of ascertaining for ,myself how accurately the memoirs of his pupils have been translated nor how impartially they recorded them,but by and large one gets an overall flavour of the chap whom I am perfectly certain it would have been sheer agony to meet-He would have seen through me in a second.

    it is a crying shame that he is dead,but, oddly enough, just as you cannot imprison an internally free man, it follows logically-if a trifle absurdly , you cannot kill him either but I simply cannot accept the obvious lie of the resurrection of *any* body-when it’s dead it’s dead,and it is nothing short of wicked to promulgate a lie that says otherwise, notwithstanding that a man is not his body,which is neither more nor less than an instrument, like a knife or a mind. I’m all for esoteric teachings such as those of Mr. bar Joseph insofar as they can accurately be ascertained,but as for religions of any colour or flavour -to the devil with the lot of them; experience has shown me that they are all, without exception vicious,and anyone that comes bleating tome claiming that their religion is somehow different will fell the same part of my boot as the rest of them; to quote the passive part of the causes of my arising when asked by Jehovah witnesses, if she wanted to be ” saved”: no, not if you are going to be’.
    ” if you want to lose your faith, take up with a religion.”-or I would say do not dilute the good whiskey of faith- a species of knowledge, with the tap water of belief – if you have evidence of the unseen(Faith), don’t tamper with, or dilute it; those that hunger and thirst for truth don’t need to have someone’s idea of it rammed down their throat. if their hunger and thirst are sincere they ……..WILL…………. be ……….. filled; that is not only obvious but good common sense.

    ” do you love me peter, once, and then again; yes you know bloody well that I do; ” feed my sheep”…
    and then AGAIN-same question , same answer but THIS time: “feed my LAMBS- maybe it got muddled in translation,but why the difference?-I don’t need some fool priest of whatever flavour assuming to tell me, it’s up to me t figure it out for myself, but assuming both the source and translation to be accurate-an huge assumption to make, it seems pretty obvious to me; you don’t force feed beings that are not hungry,but whatever they need to eat you give it them,if you have it, which is a pretty big IF- if you don’t have it then make it your business to get it-not for you, but them. sheep are an allegory for what?-similiter lambs, but any fo9ol can tell you that if you look nbafter the bshep the sheep will look after the lambs. in myself which bits are sheep and which lambs?-in myself the poor are pretty obvious, and always there, so what?-in myself, must be sold and given to the poor, given that ,in myself, I am pretty rich, and ass bad it identifying which bits of myself are poor as I am at telling sheep from lambs, and which ones are hungry and need feeding, so I need to perfect my self-awareness,that I may do my duty.-pay my dues , or, in a manner of speaking, render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s; reason, or self-awareness is the only way to tell which is which,but it is not a question of figuring-calculating, but sensing directly , or knowing in_Truth, or what Mr. bar-Joseph called Faith, sadly often mistranslated as belief,which is a species of stupidity.