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Last week I listened to an articulate, impassioned speech including American history and principles, particularly freedom of religion. It was a good speech; well delivered with passion and conviction. The speaker told us exactly what to think and went on to tell us what others were going to say. (If you need a formula to rouse suspicion over speaker or speech that’s it.) As I said, it was a good speech and well received by the speaker’s supporters; there to cheer on their cause. The apparent success of a speech, however, is not the same as saying its content is accurate or legitimate. In this case the spin exceeded the facts.
The speaker was adamant in praise of settlers from Europe inspired to come to the new world for religious freedom when the drive for colonization was based on profit. They wanted wealth and success as there is little benefit in freedom of religion if you starve doing it. Also, the usual pioneer commitment to religious freedom meant practice of THEIR religion. Early Calvinists had no problem taking a cudgel to Baptists or Huguenots. Maryland came to be in part due to nearby Protestant areas driving Catholics to establish their own “land of the Blessed Virgin Mary.” To say with forceful conviction as the speaker did that religious practice is a key in public life is to speak a gross and deceitful untruth. The exercise of religion in public life was and is the problem.
It took much distress and conflict for the framers of the Constitution to reach the point where church was separated from state. Religion and religious practice no matter how a person cuts or presents it did not accomplish that. A secular non-religious state was needed. People who say freedom of religion means or permits inserting aspects of their religion into public life are wrong in their view. In our secular state and nation religious practice is private rather than public. Some may say that is a bad thing, but I say just go somewhere the distinction is not kept and see how you like that. For us, faith is a private matter. This becomes complicated and problematic when a “faith” is closely tied to specific practices or taboos. In other words, some faiths or elements of faith will cross over the line into public domain if and as allowed. In many ways American culture and tradition has faith and ethnic, etc. bias. Christmas is not a Hindu event. The founding fathers don’t include women. The pioneer heroes have European names, and so on. But, having an overall cultural history is not the same as saying you and I must respect and honor all its elements. In this paragraph I have not done so by bringing some elements into question. I am not obliged to believe, follow, or honor any of it.
Misunderstanding freedom to make it apply to public practice of private beliefs represents a grave and dangerous error. If by speech, dress, act, or behavior a person in public behaves in a way that is clearly sectarian they are (in my view) challenging the validity of the SECULAR state that protects their exercise. If people want to self-segregate according to religion they are free to do so privately but I certainly don’t have to accept that as responsible public behavior in a secular state. Let’s say a religious faith found fowl to be foul and disgusting. OK, fine, they don’t have to eat chicken, but their objection to fowl doesn’t mean the rest of us have to stop eating turkey on Thanksgiving. In a secular state the norm is secular. The visible insertion of religious or faith content into public life is a serious threat to separation and to equity because the most restrictive beliefs will be those that demand to most in “accommodation” by others. As I see it, compromise of accommodation in those areas is a serious mistake as it surrenders public freedom in favor of sectarian practice. If a faith requires you do this that or the other, in a secular society you need to accept you do this and that in private practice and not require others to put up with it.
Spurious calls for freedom are generally destructive to freedom. It is really not freedom at all if the end result is one group imposing in some form or other its religion on others. We have all seen “free” elections used as a means to put authoritarian leaders in place. We have all seen freedom used as an excuse for behavior that deprives others of basic human rights. But, we also have to face that if you include public religious practice as a basic human right you’ve come up with a sectarian condition replacing the secular state.
There are reasons some would much prefer to see the church/state line blurred or taken down. Some motivations for doing so are considerably more worthy than others because some simply seek (no matter how cleverly put) religious imposition. July is for Freedom and for the reminder there is a task for every citizen who enjoys freedom. That task is to weigh and measure their responsibilities in a secular state protecting all. If we surrender freedom for all to the cause of freedom for some we get deeper and deeper into a muddle of sectarianism where there will be either constant conflict or strict authoritarian control. Neither of those is freedom. Freedom is something we were given. It is also something we must earn and keep alive as we move forward. It is the best gift we can give to others. Freedom can be messy. Some will say it insults them and should be limited so as not to offend. To them I say this. Freedom of religion stands on the foundation of freedom from religion. Placing practice of religion first destroys the base wisely set by the framers of the Constitution. FDR expressed this very well in 1941 by declaring the Four Freedoms. In that address he avoids the dilemma in Freedom of Religion by expressing the concept as Freedom of Worship. Worship is a private matter. When made into public policy it is an automatic violation of the freedom it pretends to represent.