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Religious Freedom

4 July 2019

Signing of the Declaration_of_Independence_(1819),_by_John_Trumbull.jpg



Today Americans are celebrating Independence Day and the inestimable blessings of religious liberty and civil liberty promised as part of that Independence. Those two aspects of liberty, religious and civil are not always linked in people’s minds anymore. Religion is now regarded by many as an essentially private matter to be rigorously excluded from the public sphere. Religious views are often disqualified from public debate merely by reason of their being religious in origin; and an agnostic secularism is thought to be the only legitimate category for public expression. The freedom of religion guaranteed by the first Amendment to the Constitution is often thought to mean freedom from religion. A song like “Imagine” would serve well as a manifesto for such views: “Imagine there’s no countries / It isn’t hard to do / Nothing to kill or die for / And no religion too.” Our country may have thus far resisted Marxist-Leninism, but it has not escaped the influence of John-Lennonism!

Against such views, let me bring to your attention four quotations, whose source I think you will easily recognize. First: “When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle them….” Second: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights….” Third: “We therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions…” Fourth: “And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor”.

In the Declaration of Independence, it is very striking that the argument for civil liberty is made on the basis of religious convictions about Nature and Nature’s God, the Creator who endows us with inalienable rights. The signers appealed to the Supreme Judge of the world to justify their intentions, and they proclaimed their reliance on the protection of Divine Providence for the success of their undertaking. This should surprise us. In our own time, human rights and religious convictions are often thought to be inherently in conflict, and those who champion human rights sometimes put themselves in opposition to those with religious convictions.

But the Declaration assumes the opposite: the very basis for its argument for human rights is the religious convictions of the American people (which was then, as it is now, overwhelmingly, and broadly, Christian). Though the first amendment would wisely prohibit Congress from establishing a state church, it has been only in recent decades that it has been interpreted as requiring a public square without religious expression. If we take the words of the Declaration seriously, we must acknowledge that the religious convictions of the American people have a critical and essential role to play in the public good.

The American republic represented not so much a break as a further development of the western political tradition, which developed over many centuries under the influence of Christianity. In this tradition, church and state came to be clearly distinguished, each with its own distinctive tasks. Both are “under God”, under his judgment and mercy; and both are necessary for the common good of society. The state maintains the peace, security, and order, in which the church can carry out the work of the gospel; the church, on its side, teaches that moral virtue without which the state cannot be just or free. T. S. Eliot has a line somewhere about the folly of devising systems so perfect that no one has to be good. The best system of checks and balances is no protection against tyranny and corruption, if there is no virtue, and no religion to inculcate those virtues.

If you think that to be an outmoded understanding, I ask you to consider what an aggressive secularism has accomplished in Stalin’s Russia, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Mao’s China, and Kim Jong-un’s North Korea. We don’t have to “Imagine” a world without religion. We have seen it, and we know it to be inhumane. Those with no fear of an account to be rendered to “the Supreme Judge of the world”, and no “firm reliance on divine Providence”, and no respect for the laws of Nature’s God and Creator, will have little constraint on their selfish and destructive passions. Only as a people willingly live under the judgment and mercy of their God can they know true freedom. I’ll am grateful this Independence Day that our founders understood that.

One Comment leave one →
  1. 2 September 2019 11:25 am

    Thank you for this highly informative post! I really enjoyed reading it! I have just published an article on my blog about if we should protect religious freedom. It would be great if you could check it out and let me know your thoughts! Thanks 🙂

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