Religious liberty is essential for this nation to endure.
There are two essential parts to the religious liberty guaranteed in the Bill of Rights in Article I. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” Over the past 50 years, we’ve argued and argued over the first clause. These debates have led to prayer and the Bible being removed from public schools; informed decisions about governmental support of faith-based organizations, et al. Some of these issues are now part of settled law.
Today, the second clause is starting to get some new attention. “Congress shall make no law… prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
What is the free exercise of religion? Aren’t people free to worship how they want? Is group worship all that religion is? I don’t know of any religion, or religious philosophy that only deals with how one operates within the four walls of the worship space. A religion is a way of life. It provides a philosophical framework for life’s big and small decisions. It provides a worldview by which people make the extraordinary and the mundane decisions of life.
In the broadest sense, any decision to limit, curtail, or force one to live against one’s philosophy of life, or conscience, is an infringement on one’s religion. And it should only be done with caution and care. Because, if we lose religious liberty, we as Americans lose what has made us unique since our founding. We lose America.
Why is religious liberty so pivotal to our identity as a nation?
- It is rooted in the concept of individual conscience. The idea of individual conscience is rooted in the concept of judgment. Today, we have begun identifying people by what group they belong to. The rights of individuals are subservient to the “group.” Group-think works because it is the easiest way to gain political clout. When we define people by the group they belong to, that person loses their individuality. That might work in the rest of the world, that is not what this nation was founded upon. Each person is a moral agent. Each person is responsible for his/her choices. If there is a God (I believe there is), do you want someone else controlling how you do or don’t follow that God?
- If you don’t have religious liberty, you don’t have any liberty. If the power of the state can dictate that one deny his/her actions toward God, since actions flow from belief, it controls one’s belief in God. When the state controls one’s belief in God, it can control anything and everything. That is how caesar-worship worked. If we give up the conviction that there is an idea, or power, or person that is greater than the state, we have just made the state into a god. And when the state is our god, we have lost personal liberty.
- Religious liberty protects the minority. Religious liberty was fought for by baptists who were being arrested and run out of certain colonies for preaching without state-church approval, They resisted paying taxes imposed by the state to pay for certain religious practices they didn’t believe in. At its core, the idea of religious liberty keeps the majority from imposing its views and practices on the minority. In the past, the principles of liberty have fueled unpopular abolitionists, women’s suffrage, even the gay-rights movement. All minorities have benefited from the principles of religoius liberty.
- Religious liberty keeps power in check. The voices of religious minorities have kept the world powers in check. The voice of dissent is a check valve for power. And without a personally well-developed conscience, there is no dissent. Every nation that has run down the road toward totalitarianism started with trying to minimize the voice of the religious.
Without religious liberty, society no longer values the life of the individual. Each person is nothing more than a cog in the machine. Each person’s value is determined by the collective. Without religious liberty, the one with power, be it political, social, or financial power, will determine the outcome of each life. The one(s) in power will dictate thoughts, direction, responsibilities and privileges. At this point, the American experiment will have come to an inglorious end.
We might think that the end of religoius liberty will be the end of the church. It won’t. I’m not worried about the gospel of Christ being snuffed out. We have seen, in 2,000 years of history, that every attempt to bring the church to an end, has only introduced a new beginning. Christians will joyfully suffer for their faith. And more will come to Christ. Christ will build his church. That’s a guarantee. But he never promised to build the United States of America.
We may not like some of the results of religious liberty. We may wish that we Christians, athiests, socially conservative or liberal, could control what our society looks like and that everyone who disagrees with us would just “get in line.” It may be less messy. But without the guarantee of religious liberty, at some point of our own personal convictions, we will find ourselves without the freedom to be who we think we were meant to be. And we will be forced to yield our self-determination to another.
That is the end of this country. America, as a government may exist, but we will have forfeited the most unique part of our national DNA.