Religious freedom was one of the most fundamental beliefs in the early history of this country. When the United States was founded, our Declaration of Independence made it clear that our basis for seeking to break ties with our colonizers was that our God-given rights had repeatedly been violated. Nonetheless, the founding fathers also respected an individual’s right not to take part in any religion at all. With clear and powerful language, the First Amendment to the Constitution reflects both beliefs simultaneously. It reads in part:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
Even though our country was founded based on a Judeo-Christian worldview, we must never, through our laws or government, impose that religious view on people who come from other faiths or those that have no faith at all. Through our jurisprudence, we constantly reevaluate our laws to make sure that this doesn’t happen.
However, it seems to me that we have become so careful to make sure that we keep Church and State separate that we’ve fostered an atmosphere that doesn’t value religious convictions. Despite the religious diversity in America, according to the Pew Research Center, almost 3/4 of people in the US identify themselves as Christians. Nonetheless, it seems as though society is becoming more and more hostile to those who take a stance on today’s most controversial issues based on their Christian convictions. Whether it’s about abortion, stem cell research or same-sex marriage, Christians are likely to hear comments like “you can’t legislate morality” or “keep your beliefs private.” It seems that in the market place of ideas, only non-religious opinions are seen as legitimate. As a Christian, I have a problem with that, but even if I wasn’t, I’d still be bothered for a few reasons:
1. You Can Legislate Morality
As Dr. Norman Geisler and Frank Turek point out in their book “Legislating Morality”, the idea that one can’t legislate morality is misguided. Almost all laws legislate morality. At its most basic level, morality is about what one ought or ought not do, which is exactly what laws address. When we put into law that you can’t murder another person, we have legislated the moral position that no one has the right to take another person’s life without justification. Just because the law against murder is also consistent with the Sixth Commandment (Though Shall Not Kill) doesn’t mean that religion is being imposed upon someone or that the government has established a religion. Separation of Church and State remains in tact.
2. “…the free EXERCISE thereof…”
When it comes to debates about laws that might impact people with certain religious convictions, I’ve heard politicians refer to the First Amendment as protecting the freedom of worship. I didn’t realize it at first, but referring to our First Amendment right in that manner actually weakens it. The implication is that we are free to believe what we want when we are in our various places of prayer or fellowship, but that we should take care not to take those beliefs any further than that. The thing is, even in the most oppressive and tyrannical country you can think of, one can believe what that want in private. The unique thing about the US Constitution is that it extends its protection for religious convictions into the public square. In the US we don’t have to check our beliefs at the doors of the Church, Mosque or Synagogue. We can be guided by, and more importantly, live by our religious convictions everywhere.
3. It’s All About Tolerance
The First Amendment essentially reflects the need for tolerance in a civilized society. The Founding Fathers appreciated that religion could be an incredibly divisive and dangerous subject, so they codified a way for people with different convictions to be able to live together. The problem with treating certain views as per se illegitimate in the public square is that it breeds intolerance and is likely to lead to oppression.
At the end of the day, a society’s laws reflect their moral values. Over time a society’s moral values can develop and change. To my mind, the only legitimate or genuine change comes from open debate that allows different viewpoints to grapple with one another. If we reject religious view points as not worthy of consideration, I believe society gets worse, not better.