Religious Freedom

Fiala on ethics: Religious freedom ideal is heart of democracy

By Andrew Fiala, Fresno Bee April 20, 2013

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The first 16 words of the First Amendment represent the heart of our democratic system, according to Charles Haynes, a senior scholar from the First Amendment Center in Washington, D.C.

Haynes gave a workshop on civic education and religious liberty at Fresno State on April 13, which happens to be Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. Haynes argued that the First Amendment represents a progressive step in world history. In other parts of the world, people kill each other over religious differences. Here, the worst that happens is that people go to court.

No system of government is perfect. But the First Amendment idea is a useful innovation. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees.

According to a poll by the Huffington Post conducted in early April, one-third of adults favor establishing Christianity as the official state religion in their own state. Thirty-two percent said they would favor a constitutional amendment making Christianity the official religion of the U.S.

In North Carolina this month, state legislators introduced a resolution stating that the Constitution does not prohibit the state of North Carolina from establishing a state religion. These legislators read the First Amendment as a narrow restriction on the federal government, which does not apply to state governments. Apparently they ignore the Fourteenth Amendment and legal precedents that extend basic rights to the states.

Thomas Jefferson may be turning in his grave. When he died, Jefferson wanted to be remembered for three of his most important projects: the Declaration of Independence, the University of Virginia and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.

In the Virginia Statute, Jefferson explained that God created human beings with free minds and that He does not use coercion to force us to believe. Jefferson also noted that political and religious leaders are fallible and uninspired men. For those reasons, religious belief should not be enforced, restrained, burdened or molested.

Moreover, Jefferson held “that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself.” He adopted that idea from the philosopher John Locke, who had argued that “the truth certainly would do well enough if she were once left to shift for herself.”

Not everyone is content to leave the truth alone to fend for herself. Some continue to think that religious truth needs to be propped up and defended by political power, by hierarchical institutions and by coercive laws.

Those who think that religious belief needs legal supports may be worried that humanity is easily corrupted. Some may fear that if religious truth were not backed up by state power, irreligion would triumph. Wouldn’t people ignore religion, if the law were indifferent to religion?

But if religious beliefs can only prevail when bolstered by coercive legal institutions, this may show us something lacking in those beliefs. It would be odd to say that we need the state to enforce ideas about gravity or mathematics. Those ideas can indeed defend themselves in a free and open marketplace of ideas.

But what about religious ideas? Jefferson thought that true beliefs would prevail in an open forum. It may be that only weak or false beliefs need to be defended by political compulsion.

The authors of the First Amendment were not directly concerned with setting up a marketplace of ideas. Rather, they wanted to prevent domination by one religion over others. As James Madison wondered, “Who does not see that the same authority, which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?”

Those who want to establish a state religion ignore the ugly history of religious violence that ensues when diverse religions vie for political power. The solution is to prevent any religion from obtaining political power.

As a birthday gift to Thomas Jefferson, we might reflect on the importance of the ideal of religious liberty. We might also reflect on the connection between religious freedom and Jefferson’s beloved University of Virginia.

For truth to prevail, people need to be properly educated about the history of religious violence, about political philosophy and about the progressive import of those sixteen monumental words.