The War on Religious Liberty

V. Why Should We Protect Religious Liberty?

In view of the Progressive movement’s escalating attacks on religious  liberty,  it  is  time  to  refresh  our  understanding  as  to why religious liberty should be protected. I offer three reasons. First,  religious  liberty is  the  cornerstone  of our Constitution. Our  Constitution  has  enabled  unprecedented  progress  and prosperity in the United States and around the world. Second, religious liberty and political liberty are inseparable. Political liberty  and  religious  liberty  developed  together  in  the  same struggle against tyranny, and neither can flourish in the other’s absence.  Men are not angels, and any government that denies religious liberty to its people will inevitably deny political liberty as well. Third, religious liberty is necessary for maintaining a free  republic.  Preserving  our  form  of  government  requires  a politically virtuous people, and political virtue requires religious liberty.

The first argument for protecting religious liberty recognizes that religious liberty is the cornerstone of the U.S. Constitution. Three  provisions  in  the  Constitution  and  Bill  of  Rights  protect religious  liberty.  The  First  Amendment’s  Free  Exercise  Clause forbids  Congress  from  making  any  law  prohibiting  the  free exercise  of  religion.(111)  The  First  Amendment’s  Establishment Clause forbids Congress from establishing an official religion in the  United  States,  or favoring  one  religion  over another.(112)   The No Religious Test Clause of Article VI, Clause 3 forbids the use of religious tests as a qualification for public office.(113)

Three  landmark  writings  influenced  the  drafting  of  these clauses    with    eloquent    justifications    for    religious    liberty. John  Locke  published  his  Letter  concerning  Toleration  (1689) immediately    after    England’s    Glorious    Revolution.    James Madison   wrote   his   “Memorial   and   Remonstrance   against Religious  Assessments”   (1785)   in   opposition   to   a   proposed Virginia   law   providing   state   support   to   religious   ministers. Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1786) disestablished the Church of England in Virginia and guaranteed freedom of religion to people of all faiths. The justifications for religious liberty advanced by Locke, Madison, and Jefferson are set out below.

The  Free  Exercise  Clause  of  the  First  Amendment  provides that  Congress  shall make  no  law prohibiting  the  free  exercise of  religion.  Freedom  of  religious  belief  is  absolute  under  the Free Exercise Clause,(114) and the Free Exercise Clause protects religious action as well as religious belief.115  Locke, Madison, and Jefferson gave the following arguments for the free exercise of religion.

Locke  argued  that  neither  the  New  Testament  nor  Christ’s example  supports  coercion  as  a  means  to  salvation.  Coercion, furthermore, is incapable of producing belief. It is not possible for an individual, by his will alone, to believe what the state tells him to believe. Our beliefs are a function of what we think is true, not what we are forced to do.

Madison argued that in religion, as in all other matters, the will of the majority must not trespass on the rights of the minority. The right to form one’s own religious belief is an inalienable right. Religion must therefore be left to the conviction and conscience of  each  individual.  Religious  belief  can  only  be  directed  by reason and conviction, not by force and violence. Men form their opinions on the evidence contemplated by their own minds, not on the dictates of other men’s minds.

Jefferson argued that God creates our minds free. Any attempt to influence our minds by temporal punishments, burdens, or civil incapacities  only produces  hypocrisy and  meanness.  Coercion in religious matters also contradicts God’s plan for religious faith. God  has  the  power  to  use  coercion  to  propagate  his  plan  for religious faith, but chooses not to do so. Furthermore, all truth is great, and truth will prevail if left to herself. Truth is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error. Truth has nothing to fear from the  contest  of  ideas  so  long  as  men  are  not  deprived  of  their right  to  free  argument  and  debate.  Errors  are  not  dangerous when men are free to contradict them.

The    Establishment    Clause    of    the    First    Amendment disestablishes religion by prohibiting Congress from making any law regarding the establishment of religion in the United States.

The  Establishment  Clause  prohibits  the  federal  government from  establishing  an  official  religion,  and  it  also  prevents  the federal  government  from  favoring  one  religion  over  another. Locke,  Madison,  and Jefferson  gave  the  following  arguments for disestablishing religion.

Locke  argued  that  the  state  is  not  competent  to  discern religious truth. States support contradictory and false religions throughout  history.  Furthermore,  neither  God  nor  men  have consented to the state’s undertaking the care of men’s souls.

Madison   gave   four   reasons   for   disestablishing   religion. First,  Madison  agreed  with  Locke  that  civil  magistrates  are not competent judges of religious truth, as proven by history. Consequently, freedom of religion must be given equally to all, and no single sect should be entrusted with the care of public worship.

Second,  Madison  argued  that  the  establishment  of religion is   counter-productive.   Establishing   a   state   religion   does not  maintain  the  purity  and  efficacy  of  religion.  Instead,  the establishment of religion produces pride and indolence in the clergy;  ignorance  and  servility  in  the  laity;  and  superstition, bigotry, and persecution in both the clergy and the laity.

Third,  establishing  religion  produces  religious  intolerance. Tolerance  of  religious  differences  produces  social  harmony every  time  it  is  tried.  The  establishment  of  religion,  however, destroys  the  moderation  and  harmony  that  religious  liberty produces between different beliefs. The Inquisition differs from the intolerance of established religion only in its degree, not in its kind.(116)

Fourth, Madison warned that giving government the power to  establish  a  state  religion  empowers  government  to  limit religious  liberty.  This,  in  turn,  gives  government  the  power to  limit  all  political  liberties  and  rights,  including  freedom  of the press, trial by jury, the right to vote, and even the right to legislate for ourselves.

Jefferson  agreed  with  Locke  and  Madison  that  the  state is  not  competent  to  discern  religious  truth.  Magistrates  are fallible and uninspired men, and magistrates have established false religions around the world and throughout history. Lastly, forcing  men  to  finance  the  spreading  of  opinions  with  which they disagree is sinful and tyrannical.

The No Religious Test Clause of Article VI, Clause 3 prohibits the use of religious tests as a qualification for holding political office.(117)  Thomas Jefferson argued that requiring a religious test for holding public office unjustly deprives men of privileges and advantages to which all men are entitled by natural right. Every man should have an equal right to seek public office.

The  greatest  justification  for  the  No  Religious  Test  Clause, however, comes from the history of civil unrest and revolution caused  by  three  English  statutes  that  established  religious tests for holding office.(118)  These statutes limited public office to those men whose religious beliefs conformed to the Church of England.

The    Corporation    Act    of    1661    excluded    all    religious nonconformists  from  public  office.  All  municipal  officials  had to  take  communion  in  the  Church  of  England.(119)The  First Test Act  of  1673  excluded  Roman  Catholics  from  any civil or military  office.  It  required  all  civil  and  military  officeholders to  swear  that  they  rejected  the  Roman  Catholic  doctrine  of transubstantiation.(120) The  Second  Test  Act  of  1678  required all  peers  and  members  of  the  House  of  Commons  to  make a  declaration  against  transubstantiation,  invocation  of  saints, and the sacrament of the Mass.(121)  This act excluded all Roman Catholics from both houses of Parliament.

The future James II, then Duke of York, was a secret Roman Catholic  serving  as  Lord  High Admiral when  the  First Test Act of 1673 was passed. James refused to comply with the act and resigned his position as Lord High Admiral. When he succeeded his  brother  Charles  II  in  1685,  James  II  abused  his  powers  as King in an abortive attempt to reimpose Roman Catholicism on England. His extreme abuses of power and illegal violations of English rights brought about the Glorious Revolution in 1688 and cost him the throne of England.

John  Locke  returned  from  exile  in  Holland  and  published  A Letter concerning Toleration in 1689. Parliament accepted Locke’s arguments  for religious  liberty and  enacted  the Toleration Act of  1689.(122)   The  Toleration  Act  permitted  Protestants  who  did not  conform  to  the  teachings  of  the  Church  of  England,  such as Baptists and Congregationalists, to maintain their own places of worship, their own teachers, and their own preachers. Social and political disabilities remained, however, for nonconformists. England  still  denied  the  right  to  hold  public  office  to  Roman Catholics and nonconforming Protestants. The ratification of the First Amendment in 1791 produced the first national guarantee of religious liberty in world history.

The second argument for protecting religious liberty recognizes that religious liberty and political liberty are inseparable. Political liberty and religious liberty developed together, and neither can flourish in the other’s absence. The experience of our common history with England demonstrates that men are not angels, and any  government  that  denies  religious  liberty  to  its  people  will inevitably deny political liberty as well.(123)

Henry VIII took England out of the Catholic fold with the Act of Supremacy in 1534. English statutes established the Protestant religion in England, and banned Roman Catholics from teaching, serving  in  the  military,  or holding  public  office. When James  II, a Roman Catholic, became king in 1685, he dedicated his reign to  establishing  an  absolute  monarchy  and  forcibly  returning England to the Catholic fold. James II openly abused his powers as  king  during  this  political  and  religious  struggle.  Ultimately, the  English  people  rose  up  against  his  tyranny in  the  Glorious Revolution, ending his reign.

James II employed five illegal and unconstitutional strategies during his political and religious struggle. First, he corrupted the courts to establish a “dispensing” power, allowing him to ignore laws he disliked. James used this power to suspend England’s religious  laws  and  place  Catholics  in  control  of  the  army,  the Privy  Council,  the  courts,  the  universities,  and  the  Church  of England. Second, James usurped Parliament’s power by rigging Parliamentary   elections   to   “pack”   Parliament,   prosecuting opponents   in   Parliament,   and   finally   dissolving   Parliament altogether. Third, James used the threat of force to control his Protestant subjects by raising an illegal standing army, placing the  army  under  Catholic  command,  and  illegally  disarming Protestants.  Fourth,  James  weaponized  the  courts  by  illegally denying  Protestants  due  process.  Fifth,  James  established  an illegal  Ecclesiastical  Commission  to  persecute  ministers  and university officials who resisted Catholicization.

James  illegally  suspended  England’s  religious  laws  on  April 4, 1688. Seven Anglican bishops presented a lawful petition to James claiming he had no authority to suspend the laws. James responded  by  prosecuting  them  for  sedition  and  libel.  A  jury acquitted the seven bishops on June 30, 1688, and the Glorious Revolution followed soon after.

James II fled England for France on December 10, 1688. William and Mary consented to the English Bill of Rights on February 13, 1689,(124)  prior to taking the throne. Forty-one provisions of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights adopt principles from the English Bill of Rights.(125)

John Locke had fled England in 1683 to avoid judicial murder by  Charles  II  and  his  younger  brother,  the  future  James  II.(126) Locke  returned  to  London  on  February  22,  1689,  nine  days after  the  English  Bill  of  Rights  became  law.127      Locke  quickly published his First and Second Treatises on Government (1689) and  A  Letter  concerning  Toleration  (1689).  Locke  devotes  his entire First Treatise to arguing against the divine right of kings.

Locke’s  Second Treatise  established five   principles   of  government   that defined     the    American     founding a    century   later.   John    Locke’s    A Letter   concerning   Toleration   (1689) argues    for    religious    liberty    free from    government    coercion.    John Locke developed all these principles in   response   to   the   religious   and political tyranny of Charles II (reigned 1680-1685)   and   his   brother  James II    (reigned    1685-1688),    described above. Religious liberty and political liberty   thus   developed   during   the same struggle against tyranny. They are  inseparable,  and  neither  can  flourish  in  the other’s absence.

Thomas    Jefferson    adopted    Locke’s    five    principles    of government  in  the  Declaration  of  Independence.128   Together, these principles define the American founding. First, all men are created morally and legally equal.129  Second, God endows men with inalienable rights.(130) Third, men establish civil governments through  their  own  actions.  God  does  not  establish  kings  by divine  right.131   Fourth,  the  powers  of  government  depend  on the consent of the governed.(132) Fifth, men may alter or abolish the government if it becomes destructive.(133)  Locke’s views on religious  toleration  influenced  the  Free  Exercise  Clause  and Establishment  Clause  of  the  First  Amendment  and  the  No Religious Test Clause of Article VI, Clause 3.

The  third  argument  for  protecting  religious  liberty  is  the necessity  of  religious  liberty  for  maintaining  a  free  republic. The Founders never expected the ruin of our republic to come from external enemies. If ruin came to the American republic, it would come from internal vices, just as internal vices caused the ruin of the Roman Republic.(134)

The  great  challenge  facing  any free  republic  is whether its people can maintain the moral discipline and virtue necessary for  the  survival  of  free  institutions.  Men  cannot  collectively govern  a  nation  if  they  cannot  first  govern  themselves  as individuals. As  Edmund  Burke wrote,  men  can  only be  free  if they are able “to place moral chains upon their own appetites. Intemperate  minds  cannot  be  free. Their passions  forge  their own fetters.”(135)   Preserving our form of government requires a politically virtuous people, and political virtue requires religious liberty.

Charles de Montesquieu discussed the necessity of political virtue for representative republics in The Spirit of the Laws (1748), a work  that  profoundly influenced  our Founders.  Montesquieu observed that despotisms are common throughout history, but representative republics are rare. Despotisms thrive on fear and coercion.  Representative  republics,  however,  require  political virtue  in  their  citizens.(136)   Political  virtue  is  the  spring  that  sets republican government in motion.(137)

Montesquieu  defined  political virtue  as  the  love  of  the  laws and  country.(138) Political  virtue  limits  political  ambition  to  the sole  desire  to  serve  one’s  country and  one’s  fellow citizens.(139) This requires a constant preference of public to private interest. Political virtue is “a self renunciation, which is ever arduous and painful.”(140) Maintaining a republic requires the instilling of political virtue.  Instilling  political  virtue  in  young  people  is  extremely difficult, and it requires the full force of education.(141)

Political  virtue  is  lost  when  men are corrupted.142  When political virtue is  lost,  love  of  the  laws  is  lost.  The loss   of  sovereign   laws   and   liberty soon  follow.  Love  of  country  is  lost to avarice and political ambition, and the   public   treasury   becomes   the patrimony   of   ruthless   individuals.143 As   Patrick   Henry   explained,   “Bad men  cannot  make  good  citizens.  No free   government,   or   the   blessings of  liberty,  can  be  preserved  to  any people  but  by  a  firm  adherence  to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue.”(144) Constitutions and laws cannot protect us from ourselves. No Constitution, no matter how great, can fill the void created by the loss of political virtue. As George Washington wrote, “No wall of words, no amount of parchment can be formed to stand against boundless ambition aided by corrupted morals.”(145)

No legal system, no matter how great, can fill the void created by the loss of political virtue. As the great French writer Alexis de Tocqueville observed, “The best laws cannot make a Constitution work in spite of morals; but morals can turn the worst laws to advantage. That is a commonplace truth, but one to which my studies are always bringing me back. It is the central point in my conception. I see it at the end of all my reflections.”(146)

Where  should  we  turn  for  the  moral  principles  required for   self-government?   How   can   we   find   freedom   from   the shackles of our passions and appetites?   Progressives rely on government. Naturalists rely on science. Philosophers rely on human reason.

Experience  shows  that  none  of  these  can  supply  the  moral principles   required   for   political   virtue.   Government   cannot supply the needed principles. Reliance on the coercive power of government inevitably leads to the destruction of liberty and the imposition of tyranny. Science, by definition, is incapable of providing  the  moral  principles  required  for  political  virtue.  As Albert Einstein observed, “Science can only ascertain what is, but not what should be, and outside of its domain value judgments of  all  kinds  remain  necessary.”(147)    Philosophers  who  rely  on human reason alone have wholly failed to provide the required principles.(148)

Throughout  history,  success  in  transcending  human  frailty has  only  been  obtained  by  recognizing  the  existence  of  a transcendent   moral   order.   This   moral   order   supplies   the necessary  principles  and  motivations  to  overcome  our  self- interest,  our willfulness,  and  our capacity for rationalization.149 Plato argued in his theory of forms that this transcendent moral order exists outside the material world. The Stoics argued that this transcendent moral order exists in a rational and benevolent Nature.  Christians  believe  that  this  transcendent  moral  order exists  in  the  providence  of  an  omnipotent,  omniscient,  and loving God.

Every man has the inalienable right to find his own path, to accept  or  reject  religious  beliefs  for  himself.  No  politician, law  professor,  or  Supreme  Court  justice  has  the  right  to tell any individual what he must or must not believe. As the Establishment  Clause  provides,  government  has  no  right  to establish a state religion or to favor any religion over another. As the Free Exercise Clause provides, government has no right to limit the free exercise of religion unless its actions are narrowly tailored and  necessary to  achieve  a  compelling governmental purpose. Lastly, as the No Test Act Clause provides, no religious test can be required as a condition of holding public office.

Endnotes

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