Freedom of Religion

Republicans support the right to Freedom of Religion as guaranteed by the First Amendment of the Uni

The First Amendment states 

“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.”

What is Freedom of Religion?

It means that government cannot legislate religion or religious beliefs or endorse a sect or denomination. 

Freedom of religious belief was a new idea, resulting from the religious persecution that many settlers had experienced in Europe. The radical nature of the idea was stated by Roger Williams, the Baptist founder of Rhode Island, when he wrote that “soul freedom” or freedom of conscience, meant “a permission of the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or anti-Christian consciences and worships, to be granted to all men in all nations and countries.” 

The first clause prohibits the government from establishing a state-sponsored church as was common in Europe. The second clause safeguards one’s freedom to believe and to practice one’s religious faith as a matter of right, without coercion or obstruction from the government. 

Religious Freedom is perhaps the greatest achievement of the American Founding. It separated politics from theology. A religious denomination could not use the power of the state and, on the flip side, the state could not dictate matters of theology. As a gift of the Creator, religious liberty cannot be taken by the government. The First Amendment permitted the flourishing of a moral consensus instead of sectarian strife. Religious freedom creates a greater opportunity for man to achieve his highest end, to worship and serve his Creator.

The founders grounded our rights in a transcendent idea, the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God.” Rights are an endowment of the Creator, not of government. 

“That is what religious liberty was and is. The government essentially said, Yes, be religious. We will not only tolerate it; we will respect it and we will encourage it. But we cannot take sides or put our thumbs on the scales. But the understanding of this has been lost to many in modern America… That was the genius of the founders, to separate church and state in such a way that they were each sacrosanct.” – Eric Metaxas

Separation of Church and State

What about the Separation of Church and State? In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association. “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 & State.” 

Jefferson was explaining why he, as President, was opposed to proclaiming national days of public fasting and thanksgiving. State governments were free to do this, in fact, six states had established State churches. But Jefferson argued, the federal government should not interfere or take sides in declaring religious holidays. 

Jefferson clearly did not intend to remove religious expression from the public square. He regularly attended church services in the House of Representatives and allowed executive offices to be used for the same purpose. The founders saw nothing wrong with the federal government indirectly supporting religion in a nondiscriminatory and noncoercive way. 

However, the Supreme Court, in 1947, re-interpreted the phrase to create a legal barrier removing religion from public life. The founders’ intention was clearly the opposite – they considered the practice of religion to be essential to civil government. Prayer and religious services were common in public ceremonies and in Congress prior to the Supreme Court decision and were considered to be simply examples of the free exercise of religion. 

The Constitution protects the exercise of religion – it emphatically does not prohibit it! As Matthew Spalding explains “The Constitution officially ‘separates’ church and state at the level of doctrine and lawmaking, it also allows the general (nonsectarian) encouragement and support of religion in public laws, in official speeches and ceremonies, on public property and in public buildings, and even in public schools. Such activities were understood to be part of the free exercise of religion.”

In limiting the free exercise of religion in the public square – and in public schools, the Supreme Court in effect put its thumb on the scales in favor of the atheists. America needs to recover the earlier balance between the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom that de Tocqueville observed. Can we permit open discussion of religious ideas and the free exercise of religion, for people of all faiths, in the public square – and in public schools? 

The French historian Alexis de Tocqueville wrote “The character of Anglo-American civilization… is the product… of two perfectly distinct elements that elsewhere have often made war with each other, but which, in America, they have succeeded in incorporating somehow into one another and combining marvelously. I mean to speak of the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom.” He contrasted the American Revolution and the French Revolution. Matthew Spalding concludes “The denial of right and wrong at the heart of the French Revolution left it unable to check the violent passions it had unleashed.” 

Richard Dawkins, an avowed secularist, recently began to express concern about the lawlessness resulting from the absence of religion in society. We encourage the citizens of Gwinnett to restore a healthy respect for the power of religious belief. It is the best answer, we believe (far better than a totalitarian state) to answer the question “What force is capable of restraining human passion?”