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The rise (and fall?) of religious liberty

POSTED: July 8, 2017 11:12 p.m.
Deseret Connect/

The United States Constitution was made the law of the land on June 21, 1788.

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This week, as we celebrate our independence and liberties, it’s worth reflecting on one of the fundamental questions of freedom facing our country — contemporary religious liberty.

Throughout most of world history, religion has been closely aligned with the state, and in many cases inseparable from it. Rulers of many ancient kingdoms — such as the pharaohs of Egypt — claimed to be divine, and the state’s religion was intimately tied with the veneration of the god-king as the head of state. Other kingdoms believed that their people had a tribal covenant with a particular god, who would protect and enrich the tribe in return for proper worship and behavior. Hence, for example, the Assyrians were the Ashuri, the people of the god Ashur.

From ancient through early modern times, no state ever permitted religious liberty in that term’s modern sense. Before the founding of the United States, all kings and countries had officially established state religions. Religion, they believed, was too serious and important an issue to leave to individual whims. If God really exists, really acts in the affairs of mankind, really brings prosperity to the people and victory in battle, then it seems obvious that alignment with the will of God should be the fundamental policy of the state.

Granted the medieval belief that state religion is a matter of cosmic importance, the question naturally arises: What to do with minority religions or religious dissenters? If religious dissent threatened the gods’ favor or even brought the gods’ wrath upon a nation, then religious dissent could be viewed as the “global warming” of antiquity, a perceived act of brazen selfishness that threatens the proper order of the cosmos, and even risks the destruction of mankind. Thus, the ancients believed individual religious liberty must be suppressed for the benefit of the community as a whole.

Most ancient and medieval states, however, permitted the practice of officially sanctioned minority religions. Some of this was purely practical — it caused too much social disruption to persecute religious minorities.

From the syncretistic pagan perspective, there were many different gods anyway, and even relatively insignificant gods like that of the Jews deserved some form of traditional veneration. But none of this meant that minority religions enjoyed equal social or political standing.

A clear hierarchy remained — the state religion dominated, but permitted certain clearly defined minority religions to function, always with strict limitations. By the early 18th century in Europe, all states had an official state religion, and regulations of varying degrees of severity describing the toleration of selected religious minorities.

The United States of America was the first country to establish true and full religious liberty. In the contemporary American context, this liberty was enshrined in the First Amendment, which reads in part: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

This originally meant that the federal government couldn’t establish official state-sponsored religions like those found in all other European countries at that time. Secondly, and just as importantly, the state couldn’t prohibit the “free exercise” of any particular religion.

Both of these clauses are limitations of what Congress — meaning the federal government — can impose on religion. They protect religion from the state. They do not in any way protect the government from religion, nor do they protect anybody from public religious displays, beliefs or practices that she might find offensive.

Paradoxically, the First Amendment prohibited Congress from establishing an official national religion in order to protect the individual states’ rights to establish an official religion. Although some of the original states (e.g., Rhode Island and Pennsylvania) had no state religion, many of them did — usually the Church of England (Anglicans) or Congregationalism in New England. There were sometimes religious tests — usually generically Christian or Protestant — for holding office.

All states, however, guaranteed freedom of conscience; while a Jew, Muslim or atheist couldn’t hold public office, he could worship as he pleased. All official state religions were eliminated by the early 19th century. Today, no officially established religion exists anywhere in the United States.

At a fundamental level, the contemporary “progressive” view of religion and the state is exactly opposed to the original intention of the Constitution — it seeks to protect the people and the state from religion, rather than to protect religion from the state. Which raises an important question: Will a secular government, by legally privileging secularism and secular interpretations of law, necessarily ultimately diminish religious liberty?
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