Now, no doubt, like many of us, my family tree probably includes unsavory sorts who wound up in the penitentiary for bootlegging or armed robbery; I don’t know.
I am sure, though, that my spiritual forebears, the early Baptists, were in jail for less shady reasons: for preaching the gospel without a state license. Those Baptists went to jail, and then agitated for freedom of conscience for everyone, because they believed that nobody’s orthodoxy ought to be state-enforced—including their own. Those pesky Baptists, and their allies, gave us a government that recognized universal religious liberty, a heritage that belongs now to all of us.
In those early years of the new Republic, as now, Baptist Christians have joined with other citizens—including those who, like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, were far from ready to walk down the aisle at a Baptist altar call—for the cause of religious freedom.
Whatever our challenges, America has always returned back to the founding principles of our republic: that religious liberty and freedom of conscience are not government grants, handed out to the deserving. Religious liberty and freedom of conscience are inalienable rights, granted by the Creator—and these natural rights belong to all persons, not just to those who are in the majority at any given time.
When it comes to the issue of religious freedom, I agree with the late Richard John Neuhaus that there is no “balancing” of the establishment clause of the first amendment with the free exercise clause. Both speak to different aspects of the same reality—a state that seeks to regulate the religious consciences of persons and groups is a state that assumes it is a god, with no accountability beyond itself.
In previous eras, state churches sought to tax citizens to carry out their religious mission, and to regulate to the margins those who might be spiritual “competitors” in the marketplace of ideas. In some times and places, some have sought to use the zoning power of the government to push aside minority religions. And, quite often, these days the civil state seeks to enforce a secular orthodoxy of sexual liberation on the consciences of others. Time after time, our government is tempted to see the free exercise of religion as a tattered house standing in the way of construction; there to be bought off or plowed out of the way, all in the name of progress.
In recent days, the American bureaucracy has sought to teach us all a theology lesson—that religion is simply a matter of what happens during the scheduled times of our services, and is left there in the foyer during the rest of the week. But our religious convictions—no matter our faith—can’t be reduced to simply the opinions we hide in our hearts, or sing in our hymns. Our religious convictions inform the way we live.
As a Christian, I believe, as Jesus commands, that we should render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar. Yet the conscience does not bear the image of Caesar, and cannot be swept into the federal treasury by government fiat. Ultimately, religious liberty and freedom of conscience matter for me because I believe all my neighbors—Christian or not—are created in the image of God.
But even Americans of no religious faith at all have an interest in the protection of religious liberties. Do we really want the sort of civil society in which the consciences of the people are so easily swept aside by government action? If the federal government isn’t checked by even our most primal allegiances, then how is the government not over the people instead of by and for them? If the government can force organizations and businesses and families to pave over their own consciences, to choose between being believers and being citizens, what will stop the government from imposing its will on your conscience next?
Cornerstone is the blog of the Religious Freedom Project (RFP) at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. The Cornerstone blog is the only online platform devoted exclusively to scholarly debate about the meaning and reach of religious liberty. Read more.