Government & Politics Opinion

Religious liberty for all

A plaque containing the U.S. Bill of Rights. Photo courtesy of Creative Commons/Ted Mielczarek

(RNS) — A recent survey found only 2 percent of evangelical Christians indicated that the Bill of Rights made America great, although more than half said they highly value the freedom of religion and less than half said they appreciate America’s Christian roots.

This lack of enthusiasm stands in sharp contrast to earlier generations. The overwhelming number of evangelical Christians during the formative period of our constitutional democracy regarded the freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights to be essential for making America great. The Constitution and the Bill of Rights created the environment for the United States to become a Beulah Land where religious dissenters of all sorts flourished because it ensured that liberty was for all.

Evangelical Christians have not lost their mind, but they have clearly lost their memory. If our fragile democracy is to survive this social amnesia, it is important for all Americans to recover our collective memory by learning anew the important stories of the forgotten tradition of religious dissent and the ways it shaped American democracy, and more importantly how dissent ensures democracy’s vitality.

When the U.S. Constitution was proposed in 1787, Article VI declared in the strongest possible language that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust.” This was the only reference to religion in the entire text, but an important one. It reflected the fact that the conviction of religious liberty in England was forged in the fires of one religious test after another.

Baptist minister John Leland. Image courtesy of ARDA

Religious dissenters, which included anyone not in good standing with the Church of England, were excluded by law from holding public office, attending university or serving in the military. In the event that a dissenter was elected to public office, there was a provision for an exception, as long as dissenting Christians received Communion in the Church of England within a year. Daniel Defoe sharply criticized the “occasional conformity” of dissenters who engaged in this dubious practice to qualify for the privilege of employment or public office, saying they were mortgaging their consciences and playing a game of Bo-peep with the Almighty.

The application of religious tests to exclude dissenters was something the Framers wanted to explicitly prohibit. But even the constitutional provision against religious tests was not sufficient for John Leland and the Baptists of Virginia. For Leland, true liberty was more than toleration, which presupposes preeminence of one and indulgence of others. Genuine liberty, he argued, must apply equally to “Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.” Liberty must be for all or it is not liberty at all.

To secure this liberty, Leland met with James Madison, who was preparing to run for the Constitutional Congress of 1788. Leland protested that the Constitution had no provision for religious liberty. Madison agreed, but he stated that if elected he would work to secure religious liberty as he had done in Virginia. Leland and the Baptists agreed to support Madison, who was elected by a large margin. Virginia passed the Constitution in June 1789, and Madison went on to write the Bill of Rights, which was approved in 1791. The First Amendment made good on his promise to religious dissenters, declaring that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Evangelical Christians in the founding of our republic understood something worth remembering. The flourishing of their communities depended on the extension of religious freedom, not only to minority Protestant dissenters like themselves, but to all — Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and people of all faiths or none at all.

Evangelical Christians are not alone in suffering from a severe case of historical amnesia. It is a condition afflicting many Americans who have no memory of the inclusive vision in the Bill of Rights.

Even more importantly we are in danger of losing the recognition of, and capacity for, living with fundamental religious differences, which is a foundational condition to the basic political tolerance on which American democracy depends. Religious pluralism is a legacy of religious liberty. Both were crucial in the formation of American democracy, and both remain essential for its flourishing today.

We must not allow a misremembering of history to change religious liberty into a presumed privilege of a religious majority (real or assumed) or to become a tool of exclusion used against religious minorities (no matter how different from us they may be). To do so turns our founding principles on their heads. It was just such a bad idea that called for the creation of the lively experiment that became America. Let’s celebrate and defend religious liberty for all, and make America great again.

(Curtis W. Freeman, research professor of theology at Duke Divinity School, is the author of the new book “Undomesticated Dissent: Democracy and the Public Virtue of Religious Nonconformity” from Baylor University Press. The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service)

About the author

Curtis W. Freeman


Click here to post a comment

  • “The flourishing of their communities depended on the extension of religious freedom, not only to minority Protestant dissenters like themselves, but to all — Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and people of all faiths or none at all.”

    Yes, I vote for none at all.

  • While you may indeed favor the notion that people practice no spiritual faith at all, such a position has no constitutional leverage, and in that context your “vote” is of no practical effect.

  • Practicing said freedom yet again:

    Putting the kibosh on all religion in less than ten seconds: Priceless !!!

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated/reborn Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    A constant cycle of reincarnation until enlightenment is reached and belief that various beings (angels?, tinkerbells? etc) exist that we, as mortals, cannot comprehend makes for a no on Sikhism.

    Added details available upon written request.

    A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups calling themselves a religion.

    e.g. Taoism

    “The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally, Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

    Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother’s womb for eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man. “

  • I read his comment to mean that regardless of how little some of us think of religion, it’s practice is protected under the 1st Ammendment so our opinions carry no weight.

  • Not so. I’m saying that constitutionally his argument has no legal force. Until such time that atheists can command a majority of a specific percentage of the several state legislatures (2/3 to propose, 3/4 to pass), or 2/3 of the Congress to propose, an amendment establishing atheism, or eliminating the free exercise of religion, his point is moot. Such an amendment would have to be a repudiation of the 1st and 14th Amendments, which is another constitutional hurdle.

  • “Until such time that atheists can command a majority of a specific percentage of the several state legislatures (2/3 to propose, 3/4 to pass), or 2/3 of the Congress to propose, an amendment establishing atheism, or eliminating the free exercise of religion, his point is moot.”

    I sincerely doubt that was his point there. There is a lot more to atheism than anti-theism. Most just want to be left alone and not have to deal with government compelled religiosity.

  • Freedom of thought and expression for everyone, equally. This includes both the inviolable right to have and express dumb ideas (including religion), and the inviolable right to challenge and criticise dumb ideas (including religion).

  • Using this one poll as a criticism of American evangelicals is silly and baseless.

    While this link below to the Barna webpage doesn’t contain a link to the actual poll questions, I’m going to assume that it was similar to the info graphic displayed on the page. It asks Americans to pick two things from a pre-selected list and answer the question “What Makes America Great?” I highly doubt whether Barna asked evangelical Christians “Do you think the Bill of Rights makes America great?” and only 2% said yes. Barna merely asked people to rank the Bill of Rights relative to other things. A complete list of options isn’t provided, so we don’t even know what evangelicals considered more important than the Bill of Rights (other than the two things Barna specifically mentions).

    In comparison, it looks like from Barna’s vague wording, that 10% of either Christians as a whole or the rest of the country considers the Bill of Rights something that makes America great. And there’s a plus or minus +3 margin of error, so theoretically, there could be only a couple percentage point difference between evangelicals and the rest of the country. Yet evangelicals are the bad guys in Mr. Freeman’s eyes.

    This is either poorly researched reporting on behalf of Mr. Freeman and RNS or it’s deliberate propaganda meant to make evangelicals looks bad.

    If someone has a link to the actual research, it might help clear things up.

    www dot barna dot com/research/makes-america-great/

  • As I understand it, Atheism is defined as having no belief, or a disbelief in any form of Spiritual Deity. Agnostics have more of a maybe, maybe not mindset, but tend towards skepticism. Atheism derives from the Greek, and the leading A generally signifies anti or against; A-theism thus means, anti-theism.

  • It seemed precisely his point to me. As to being left alone by the pestiferous Feds whatever the context, it is to laugh, no matter which side of the spiritual, social, or political spectrum one falls on. At the same time, I would think that you might cite me and people of my ilk, as among those you would rather be left alone by(the grammar and syntax is terrible in that last sentence, but you know what I mean. &-)

  • How exactly are you being compelled? Are you forced to attend a certain church at the point of a gun? Are you required to cite the Apostle’s Creed?

  • And mankinds attempt to believe they can solve the world’s problems without Christ Jesus.
    Mankinds ignorance will never see wisdom.