Two hundred and thirty-seven years ago, a group of Americans representing what were then English colonies gathered in Philadelphia and agreed to risk all they had on a certain proposition.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident," they said, "that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."
Having won their independence, Americans would eventually write and ratify a Constitution authorizing a limited central government -- and would immediately add to that constitution a Bill of Rights.
The first words in that Bill of Rights say: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
Last fall, Cardinal Frances George, archbishop of Chicago and former president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, published a column in his archdiocesan newspaper under the headline, "The wrong side of history."
"The present political campaign has brought to the surface of our public life the anti-religious sentiment, much of it explicitly anti-Catholic, that has been growing in this country for several decades," the cardinal wrote. "The secularizing of our culture is a much larger issue than political causes or the outcome of the current electoral campaign, important though that is."
He then recounted something he had told some Catholic clergymen.
"Speaking a few years ago to a group of priests, entirely outside of the current political debate, I was trying to express in overly dramatic fashion what the complete secularization of our society could bring," the cardinal said. "I was responding to a question, and I never wrote down what I said, but the words were captured on somebody's smartphone and have now gone viral on Wikipedia and elsewhere in the electronic communications world.
"I am (correctly) quoted as saying that I expected to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square," said the cardinal. "What is omitted from the reports is a final phrase I added about the bishop who follows a possibly martyred bishop: 'His successor will pick up the shards of a ruined society and slowly help rebuild civilization, as the church has done so often in human history.'"
Less than a year has passed since Cardinal George published his column, but already his "overly dramatic" vision seems not so "overly dramatic."