Preserving American Democracy: Religious Freedom and Freedom from Religion

The guarantee of religious freedom was one of the fundamental precepts upon which the American democracy was founded. In the 21st century, we need to add a new precept to the list. That precept is the guarantee of freedom from religious interference in the core processes of our democracy.

Over the past several years, members of various religious groups have tried to move the construct of religion front and center in the design and administration of various governmental rules and regulations. The frequency and intensity of efforts in this regard have made "separation of church and state" an almost alien concept.

This trend which is pushing the United States toward becoming a theocracy is frightening. It undermines the democratic underpinnings of this republic and subordinates a citizen's rights and responsibilities to shape our governmental system.

It is time to reconsider the founders' intent in establishing this democracy and the essential and necessary distinction between actions of faith versus civic actions. Fortunately, this examination need not be created from whole cloth.

In 1985, at the invitation of Dr. Jerry Falwell, Chancellor of Liberty Baptist College in Lynchburg, VA, Senator Edward "Ted" Kennedy, gave a speech to an audience of Liberty students, faculty and other evangelicals titled "Faith, Truth and Tolerance in America." Kennedy's talk is as relevant - perhaps even more - today as it was over thirty years ago.

Senator Kennedy began his speech by observing:

I am an American and a Catholic; I love my country and treasure my faith. But I do not assume that my conception of patriotism or policy is invariably correct, or that my convictions about religion should command any greater respect than any other faith in this pluralistic society. I believe there surely is such a thing as truth, but who among us can claim a monopoly on it?

He went on to give a history lesson regarding religious freedom reminding or informing those present that:

  • The framers of the Constitution professed very different faiths. Washington was an Episcopalian. Adams a Calvinist and Jefferson a Deist.
  • There was considerable discrimination against Catholics, Jews and other "non-conformists" at the state level (the original thirteen colonies) before the Constitution was passed.
  • In spite of this, these groups and those of other religious persuasions united to fight for an American commonwealth.
  • The framers recognized the critical importance of this "ecumenical" common cause in creating the United States by drafting a Constitution, as amended, which granted "freedom for all religion and from any established religion, the very first place in the Bill of Rights."

Kennedy moved from the historical perspective to a philosophical one in which he provided the following key insights:

...there are areas where government cannot and should not decide what is wrong to believe, to think, to read, and to do.

The real transgression occurs when religion wants government to tell citizens how to live uniquely personal parts of their lives.... Some questions may be inherently individual ones, or people may be sharply divided about whether they are. In such cases, like Prohibition and abortion, the proper role of religion is to appeal to the conscience of the individual, not the coercive power of the state.

But there are other questions which are inherently public in nature, which we must decide together as a nation, and where religion and religious values can and should speak to our common conscience.

He concluded his comments by recommending four tests that should be applied to draw the line between "imposed will and essential witness" in order to "keep church and state separate" while at the same time recognizing that "the City of God should speak to the civic duties of men and women."

They are:

1. We must respect the integrity of religion itself. On this test, Kennedy advised, "Religious values cannot be excluded from every public issue, but not every public issue involves religious values."

2. We must respect the independent judgments of conscience. On this test Kennedy advised, "Those who proclaim moral and religious values can offer counsel, but they should not casually treat a position on a public issue as a test of fealty to faith."

3. In applying religious values, we must respect the integrity of public debate. On this test Kennedy advised, "In that debate, faith is no substitute for the facts."

4. We must respect the motives of those who exercise their right to disagree. On this test, Kennedy advised, "We sorely test our ability to live together if we readily question each other's integrity."

In conclusion, as we were drafting this blog, we realized that although Senator Kennedy's address at Liberty was labeled a speech, it was really a sermon.

A sermon for believers and non-believers alike. A sermon to our moral conscience and our civic consciousness. A sermon about kindness, understanding and civility. A sermon not of absolutism but of relativism. A sermon for the 21st century.

We live in an era of civic and religious separatism and at a time in which ideological certainty and authoritarianism is being substituted for collective and cooperative efforts. We would do well to heed the message in Kennedy's sermon.

If we do, we can search for the truth together by advancing the dual principles of religious freedom and freedom from religion. If we do not, and choose the path of dogmatism and religious intolerance, our democracy will suffer and we as citizens will pay the price.