Is Freedom of Religion a Mistake?

Shadia B. Drury

Freedom of religion is a hard-core American value that is rarely questioned. It was supposed to be the ultimate solution to the grisly wars of religion that ravaged Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But religion is rarely satisfied with liberty. It invariably seeks dominance. It is akin to a wild beast that cannot be tamed; the brute is always there and ready to turn on its benefactor.

During the Republican primaries for the 2012 presidential nomination, Republican hopefuls made clear that, as far as they were concerned, America was a Christian country and that they would govern accordingly. Newt Gingrich, a recent convert to Catholicism, declared that he would not suffer atheists to teach in the schools: “I wouldn’t have anybody teaching who felt uncomfortable explaining what the Founding Fathers meant when they said that our rights come from our creator.” All the candidates seemed eager to reverse Roe v. Wade and protect the “rights of the unborn” from the moment of conception. Rick Santorum proudly declared that he would outlaw abortions even in cases of rape or incest—because every child is a gift of God, no matter how brutally God decides to deliver it. Most of the candidates were enthusiastic about passing the Defense of Marriage Act, which would rob homosexuals of their freedom to live like other couples. In one “debate” after another, the Republican hopefuls made it clear that their intention is to restore Judeo-Christian values to America and to use the coercive power of the state for their ends.

Evangelical Christians could not be more delighted since all the candidates fit the goals of the new evangelical movement—Dominionism, which aspires to ensure that Christian values dominate every aspect of American life, including family, civil society, courts, business, and media. Dominionism is nothing new. Once again, religion is unsatisfied with freedom; it seeks dominance. So, why should freedom of religion be granted to those who understand freedom in terms of dominance? It is necessary to reconsider or renegotiate freedom of religion.

The first step is to make absolutely clear that freedom of religion is not a natural right. The freedom of religion is a political right that is granted by a given state. As a political right, it is not without corresponding obligations; first among these is respect for the laws of the state. The reason that Catholicism wreaked so much havoc on Europe was its refusal to be subject to any law. It insisted on being mistress of all, above all temporal orders, living by the light of God, which amounted to being a law unto itself.

Freedom of religion is the same as freedom in general. No one is born free. We are all born in a state of tutelage to our parents. We earn the right to be free as we cultivate the rational means by which to govern ourselves. Freedom presupposes rationality and responsibility. It belongs to those who recognize that it is not reasonable to demand rights and freedoms that we are unwilling to grant to others. The freedom of individuals has never been unconditional. But the freedom of religion in the United States has been a sacred cow without conditions.

That freedom is enshrined in the First Amendment to the Constitution, which prohibits the making of any law “respecting an establishment of religion” or impeding “the free exercise” of religion. The First Amendment makes it clear that the church has no obligations to the state. But the reverse is not the case. The state is prohibited from interfering in religious faith by creating an established church akin to the Church of England, which was established by Henry VIII and Elizabeth I as a means of preventing the Catholic Church from making the states of Europe the the instruments of its nefarious commands: Kill these heretics! Segregate these Jews! Burn these witches! The newly established church was subordinate to the Crown—and still is. In contrast, American churches are free. It is no wonder that they are so much admired by the pope, who applauds the way they use their freedom to reestablish the domination over the state that he believes is rightfully theirs.

The First Amendment sets no conditions or limits that would lead to the forfeiture of the free exercise of religion. The law is based on the false assumption that nothing bad can come from the free exercise of religion. In his famous letter of 1802 to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut, Thomas Jefferson assumed that religious duty would never conflict with man’s “social duties.” He missed precisely what was problematic about Protestantism: in its revolt against the power of the papacy to dictate correct beliefs, it allowed everyone to read and interpret the Bible for themselves and live according to the dictates of conscience. The trouble is that conscience can be silenced or corrupted. The Dominican prosecutors, who condemned innocent people to death as heretics, did not suffer any pangs of conscience. The suicide bombers who kill innocent people in the streets of Kabul, Baghdad, Islamabad, and Jerusalem are not bothered by reproaches of conscience. Religious belief allows otherwise decent people to do dreadful things with a clear conscience. So, the first thing that needs to be done if the freedom of religion is to be renegotiated is not to grant conscience unfettered sway. The dictates of conscience must be subordinated to the civil law. This means no teenage wives for middle-aged Mormon men, no multiple wives for Muslims, and no honor killings for anyone.

Contrary to the fantasy of American secularists, there is nothing in the Constitution that requires the state to be secular. The establishment clause is not an endorsement of secularism but of nonsectarianism. It merely requires the state to be neutral regarding the plurality of Protestant churches. It may be argued that a state cannot hope to be neutral unless it is also secular. Even though this claim is philosophically convincing, it is historically false as an interpretation of the Constitution. Even the most avid defenders of the separation of church and state among the Founding Fathers never conceived of the possibility of a secular state.

Thomas Jefferson understood the establishment clause as “building a wall of separation between Church and State.” But Jefferson’s wall of separation was a fiction. In reality, it has never been respected by either church or state. The church has never been satisfied with religious freedom and has rarely passed up an opportunity to interfere in the affairs of American state, for example, by endorsing wars and supporting political candidates. Dominionism is the current articulation of this quintessential religious hunger for dominance. But the same is also true of the American state—it has not managed to resist the temptation to use religion for its own purposes. Indeed, Jefferson was one of the worst offenders.

When Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were asked to design a seal for the United States in 1776, these two Enlightenment rationalists suggested the use of biblical narratives to define the nation. Franklin proposed to depict Moses parting the Red Sea, with the children of Israel escaping while the chariots of Pharaoh are engulfed by the water as it closes in on them. Jefferson suggested depicting the Israelites guided by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.* Luckily, cooler heads prevailed, and the eagle clutching thirteen arrows in one claw and an olive branch in the other was chosen—it appears on the back of the one-dollar bill. However, faith in America’s special status in the eyes of God was never abandoned. It made its appearance on the back of the seal, which also appears on the back of the dollar bill. It features an incomplete pyramid signifying America’s yet incomplete project with 1776 in Roman numerals indicating the start of the Novo Ordo Seclorum—the new order of the ages. At the top of the unfinished pyramid is the eye of God, with the confident declaration, Annuit Coeptis—“He has favored our undertaking.” In short, American self-understanding has never been secular—America is a country distinguished by a civil religion that defines its very being. It has always believed itself to be the apple of God’s eye and its ventures inseparable from God’s own plans for the world. In this way, the American state has used religion to promote its wars, its conquests, and its self-aggrandizement as the Zion that will light up the world. As G.K. Chesterton once remarked, “America is a nation with the heart of a church.”

Faith in America’s election was not restricted to radical Puritans or supposedly enlightened Founding Fathers. It is still rampant among the staunchest of American atheists. So, if the freedom of religion is to be renegotiated, then both sides must respect the wall of separation. The wall of separation must be understood as a pact of mutual forbearance and non-interference that goes both ways. The state offers the churches freedom, but in exchange, the churches must mind their own business where political affairs are concerned. At the same time, the state must also refrain from debasing religion by politicizing it or using it as a vehicle to promote its own agenda. But in view of the history of the nation and its pretensions about its divine mission or its world-historical destiny, chances are that the wall of separation will continue to be a fiction, and religion will continue to radicalize American politics.



* Conrad Cherry, ed., God’s New Israel: Religious Interpretations of American Destiny (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1971, 1998). See also Great_Seal_of_the_United_States; search for the subhead “First committee.”

Shadia B. Drury

Shadia B. Drury is professor emerita at the University of Regina in Canada. Her most recent book is The Bleak Political Implications of Socratic Religion (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

Freedom of religion is a hard-core American value that is rarely questioned. It was supposed to be the ultimate solution to the grisly wars of religion that ravaged Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But religion is rarely satisfied with liberty. It invariably seeks dominance. It is akin to a wild beast that cannot …

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