Join us for debate at our Facebook Group, Liberty Cafe!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

On Religious Freedom and the Public Square

What's so bad about religion? What's so damn wrong about it that it drives inverted church-and-state activists bonkers? Is religion so powerful that seeing a lone cross in the desert will create the notion that the government supports Christianity over all else? Is it really so important to muzzle religious speech by banning or diluting the original message of a display? What does that say about how we Americans view religious freedom as compared to our Founders who pioneered the idea? I hope with this post to answer these questions and to lay out a moderate and liberty-based approach to religious freedom in this great country.

Religion and Culture

From the dawn of time, man has had stories of gods, devils, spirits and all kinds of paranormal beings creating the world we see around us. Throughout the years religion has evolved from trying to explain the sun, the stars and the wind to become the staple of the world's most advanced cultures on the planet. Not only that, religion has created some of the most beautiful art, inspired the most profound works of literature, and even was the rallying cry behind the American Revolution and the call to free millions of blacks from the bondage of slavery and suppression of the civil rights. There is not one nation, not one culture, that hasn't been based around or based on a religion.

Even today, in spite of anti-religious rhetoric, every human being is wired to have some kind of faith. They have faith in God, faith in Allah, faith in any number of scriptures, texts, ideas or powerful creators. Our modern society has even reached the point where political ideologies have reached such extremes that the term “political religion” describes the movement's religious nature to secular ideal - not a political ideology based in religious doctrine. To use a current issue, people talk about “believing” in universal health care, having “faith” in its workability, or even outright dismissing fact and proclaiming it good and moral, as if the very declaration will destroy the pitfalls.

Secular political religion in America has a very big grudge against traditional religion and traditional culture as well. One does not have to be an atheist or agnostic to be part of the secular political religion movement. There are many groups of faithful people who also believe in the strict secularization of America's public square. From removing God from the pledge of allegiance to banning any moments from schools that could be used for prayer, the secular political religion has made headway in all aspects of American life. Either knowingly or unknowingly, they have created a wedge between America and her culture, between America and her national values, between America and the ability to teach moral lessons on a national scale. This is dangerous in the long view because no matter how you view a certain religion, or all religions, a moral code is necessary for a moral and just society. There is no better teacher of basic individualistic morality than religious texts.

Defining the Great Line

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
-First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.
-Thomas Jefferson. From his letter to the Danbury Baptists on government interference in religion.


As read by the secularization movements, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” along with “a wall of separation between church and state” indisputably means that religion must be either totally removed from the public square or accommodated in full by all other faiths. Otherwise it would seem that the government, state or federal, is “establishing” a religion. A theocracy-by-perception, if you will. This is a ludicrous view of the First Amendment and its history. It also distorts Jefferson's meaning of “church and state” and his personal views on religion in the public square.

Firstly, before anything else, one must read the entirety of the religious clauses of the First Amendment. It says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The first clause is pretty clear in that the United States is not to have a state religion, a state church or any kind of state subsidized religious domination by one section over others. The second clause clearly states in light of the state not establishing a national religion, that the free exercise of religion cannot be prohibited. It does not say that the state cannot have religious displays in national parks, state parks or city parks. It does not say the state must accommodate a religious display with displays of other faiths around it to remove the perception of religious establishment. It does not say that without accommodating other faiths, such displays must be removed for the sake of secular views on religion. It states simply that the state cannot establish a national faith nor can it deny the expression of faith among its citizens. The religious clauses were intended as such as seen by their early drafting, which were written by James Madison as: “The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience by in any manner, or on any pretext infringed.” [1]

While the First Amendment has a clear cut definition of what is and is not permissible by the government in the religious realm, as in all things, modern complexity has brought up many issues that may not fit so easily into the original intent of the clauses. For instance, should a public school have a recited prayer before classes begin? During the first two centuries of America (and before the creation and implementation of incorporation to the states), it was not seen as a violation to have prayer. But with the ever increasing number of secularists, atheists and agnostics, the issue was eventually brought up before the infamous Supreme Court ensemble known as the Warren Court. The verdict in the case (known as Abington Township v. Schempp (1963)) created a new test for judges to use in such cases and is known as the “secular purpose” test. The test is supposed to determine if an activity is secular enough to be compatible with the Establishment Clause. In my opinion, the Warren Court ruled justly. In today's society, the Christian faith, while the majority, no longer has the super majority it once had. To be faithful to the intent of the Establishment Clause, an obvious Christian prayer, even if it's non-denominational, cannot be mandatory in a government-run school.

If the line had been drawn there, I don't think anyone including the politically active religious of us would be able to argue against a simple reforming from a Christian to a secular moment in public schools. Prayer would not be suppressed, but simply not encouraged by the state. Alas, the line was not drawn in rock, but sand. Since then, prayer at after-school games and clubs have been banned or called into question. Christian groups on high school or college campuses have been banned or threatened with banning if they did not include people of other faiths in their clubs. Government voucher programs for poor minority students have been cut with some justifying it on the grounds that the money went to religious schools and the government should not be supporting such schools due to the Establishment Clause. (They forget that these schools were being paid for their service - not subsidized for being religious. Nor do they remember these lucky children were removed from violent and failing public schools that were awful in spite of massive funding.) This hardly scratches the surface as displays religious and seemingly religious in nature are being taken down or are in the process of being struck down. Even World War I memorials in the lonely Mojave Desert are not safe from those who see a single cross on public land as the creeping shadow of a government sponsored religion.

The Hammer, the Flea and the Vase

This post is not meant to demean secularism or try to make excuses for those who wish to see a more religiously based government in America. The former, in the form of the Establishment Clause, has done much to prevent the permanence of religious-based idealists like Woodrow Wilson or (God help us if he ever become President) Mike Huckabee. But, in contrast to the vast good the Establishment Clause has done, the misreading and its abuse by anti-religious groups and overzealous secularists has put religion in a bind, and with that, the nation's moral center.

Every major religion in America has the same common views on life, its importance and its care. Christians, Muslims and Jews may argue over theology, but there is concurrence on topic such as abortion or euthanasia. One will see a beautiful display of inter-religious harmony. Human cloning, destroying embryos for research and other science versus morality issues all require that we look to our moral leanings for guidance. It doesn't matter if you think Christians are polytheists, that Muhammad was a child rapist or that Buddhists are just wackos worshiping a fat statute. When it comes to reflecting on moral choices, religion has the monopoly that no one can break.

The thing is that secular political religion has a problem with the moral monopoly. It may be because of religion's view on gay rights, divorce, drug use, child rearing, etc. The more outlandish and idealistic of the secular movement don't simply want religion in its rightful place in the public square, as the Warren Court provided, but it wants it gone from the square completely. Those in like-mind with the anti-religious crowd, even though they may not be anti-religious themselves, cannot justify their views unless they are prepared to admit they are either anti-religious or making a big mistake. To me, the secularist, who isn't anti-religious, sees an ugly flea of dangerous religious power on the face of the beautiful religious culture vase and wishes it gone. However, instead of simply blowing the flea off the vase with their breath, (something that won't harm the vase), they take a hammer and smash the vase into pieces just to remove the aesthetic unpleasantness of a single flea. How does that help anything? It doesn't, and it drives our faithful citizens to object to the destruction of our grand and free religious traditions - traditions that have done so much for the people of this country. What do they get for their objections? Anti-religionists and like-minds saying religion has no place in this discussion - bold words from the temple's vandals.

Secularize the Government, Pluralize the Square

Most Americans have a rightful fear of the government, either economically, militarily, religiously or politically. Some fear it on all sides, and some do not fear it at all. Religious freedom today has been suppressed on the fear of a religiously powerful government growing from the raising of monuments by private citizens, students and localities. American history does have its times of religiously motivated political extremism, from preachers defending slavery to civil rights suppression and the President saying God wants the nation under a united culture of Christianity. We should not ignore the dangers of a religious-driven politic. Yet, we can't simply throw out the baby with the bathwater, or in this instance, the faith with the demagogue.

As written by the Founders, government has no place in the religious square. Government should not regulate religion nor should it invite religion to create policy or give it undue control of anything. Government should not pick one religion over another; or a group of religions over another group. No public building should have religious imagery without a historical or secular purpose, as the Warren Court ruled. Basically, government can't play favorites with the public's faith. However, the government shouldn't be playing policeman with people's feelings and (mis)perceptions either. Private events approved by public schools, private monuments on public land approved by a city or state should not be torn down over the objections of overzealous secularists under the pretense of a person's perception (most of all theirs). Isn’t it possible to simply regulate HOW MANY private memorials can go up in any section of land - not WHAT KIND of private memorials go up? Hell, just for safety's sake, put a sign saying “The government is not responsible for the views of the displays in this park,” or something along those lines just so everyone knows that the government isn't about to toss gays in jail or atheists into churches. It's simpler and more free to secularize the government, but leave the public square to the plurality of faiths that have built and kept America moral since its birth.

One's ability to display their political views and religious faith in the public square is the core reason of the First Amendment. To toss away half of a guaranteed freedom for bleeding hearts, hand wringers and angry bigots proves that we're cowards, not enlightened.


No comments: