A baptism in Connecticut a few days after Christmas was the occasion to jump into the minivan with my six youngest for a road trip. We set off a day early to visit Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Our first stop was the Norman Rockwell Museum.
America’s beloved illustrator is most famous for the cover illustrations of everyday life he created for The Saturday Evening Post magazine over the span of nearly five decades.
The 323 covers — on display in the museum’s lower level — capture the innocence of youth and the pleasure of the ordinary. They depict a Middle America of honest tradesmen, local townspeople and mischievous boys. It has mostly vanished now; perhaps it never quite 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 that are treasured in the 21st century, such as racial equality and those that are falling by the wayside.
On the museum’s main level, I found something that especially resonated. Mr. Rockwell was inspired by Franklin Roosevelt’s State of the Union speech in 1941. Mr. Roosevelt presented his reasons for involving America in World War II. He did so by referring to universal freedoms. He named four of them: freedom of speech; the freedom of every person to worship God in his own way, everywhere in the world; freedom from want; and freedom from fear. Mr. Rockwell took these ideals and brought them into focus.
I stood in the center of the exhibition room, struck by how these four freedoms have been tested recently.
There is no denying that the pandemic has strained economic and emotional freedom. Many people are wanting. Many are fearful. As for the other two freedoms — freedom of speech and the freedom to worship God — the situation is dire.
Mr. Rockwell illustrates the freedom of speech by showing a working man who is standing up to speak at a town meeting. The man, wearing a worn leather jacket, is surrounded by his neatly dressed neighbors. Mr. Rockwell had, in fact, just witnessed such a scene; he stuck his own face among the townspeople. The point is that, in his painting, you can see that no one is going to stop the speaker from voicing his unpopular opinion.
I immediately thought of Scott Smith, a 48-year-old plumber and father of a Loudoun County, Virginia, girl who was sexually assaulted in her high school bathroom by a “gender fluid” boy in the girls’ bathroom. Mr. Smith objected to the school board’s new gender-inclusive policies. 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 the freedom of speech for concerned parents like Mr. Smith and others, issued a memorandum this fall directing authorities to respond to what he claimed was a “disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff who participate in the vital work of running our nation’s public schools.” The FBI, in response, has set up a process to track parents who speak out against ideologically driven teachers and school board members.
Have we really become a country in which parents cannot stand up and voice certain concerns without looking over their shoulders? There were plenty of such countries in the 1940s — but they were our enemies.
An even more aggressive assault on religious freedom is underway. When houses of worship were targeted in 2020 by pandemic-related restrictions in New York, the Supreme Court eventually stepped in. “Members of this Court are not public health experts, and we should respect the judgment of those with special expertise and responsibility in this area. … But even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten,” explained the Court. Despite such clear guidance, politicians in Maine and New York state refuse to protect the rights of conscience in vaccine mandates for health care workers.
And the demands of liberal ideologies, some of them frighteningly non-negotiable, are likely to linger well beyond the pandemic. It’s true that last year, a unanimous Supreme Court vindicated Philadelphia’s Catholic foster care program to operate consistent with traditional religious teaching on marriage. But that was just one victory in a war that we may end up losing. Faith-based groups and people are now facing unprecedented pressure to conform to expanded anti-discrimination policies as a precondition for serving the common good.
When Mr. Rockwell’s massively popular Four Freedoms series was published, Time Magazine described it as “a loving image of what a great people likes to imagine itself to be.” That was unarguably true in 1943. But, in 2022, do the same ideals still truly capture our imagination? Have some freedoms become too awkward and unfashionable in the public mind to continue to defend? And, if so, will we be condemned to watch them slip away?
• Andrea Picciotti-Bayer is the director of the Conscience Project.