Freedom of Religion and the Establishment Clause. What Do They Say?

Posted on May 26, 2019

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Freedom of Religion and the Establishment Clause. What do they say?

The First Amendment to the Constitution reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” It is either simple, or a mouthful, or both.

We are not going to explain or interpret it in a column of 800 words or less. For one, I am not a lawyer, nor a politician, nor a political scientist, nor presumably any other student of the Constitution and its application over the past 228 years or from 1791 when it became law to now. I do, however, reserve the right to express some common sense.

As I understand it, one of the legitimate complaints our Founding Fathers, and those of their generation, had was with the Church of England, known in America, eventually, as the Episcopalian Church. Now Episcopalian friends, I’m just dealing out a bit of history here. No offense meant or intended.

The Church of England, as the “official” Church in England, had long meddled in politics. It caused kings and queens to fall and rise as long as there was a monarchy in England, which is at least 1000 years or more, depending on how you date it, to now. The Church of England today has almost degraded to non-existence.

But, not so in the 17th and 18th centuries when deep hostility and outright warfare raged between Christian denominations, including Roman Catholicism, the Church of England (sometimes known as the Anglican Church) and the Protestant denominations that popped up in the wake of the Reformation kicked off by Martin Luther in the sixteenth century. Think Anabaptists, Calvinists, Lutherans, Puritans, etc.

What kind of hostility are we talking about here? Try everything from confiscating property to burning your opponents at the stake, all done, at least ostensibly, to ensure that the people of England and her empire were worshipping the right way. This was, BTW, not an English phenomenon but spread across all of Europe.

To get the Church out of the business of torture, executions, persecutions, and interference in the affairs of governing, and allow the new government (the Revolution and the Constitution) the ability to govern freely according to the thinking in the new age of rationalism and reason of the 18the century, the First Amendment was ratified; separate the secular sphere from the religious sphere. Notice it was the First Amendment. It was important to the members of the Constitutional Convention.

The second part of the Amendment devoted to religion allowed for the freedom of worship, or sometimes called the freedom of conscience. It was equally important. The Constitutional convention was doing away with a formal state religion that had historically intruded into the affairs of state, but they were equally devoted to the freedom of religion, so that each American can follow her conscience in matters of faith. The Puritans of the early 17th century after all were fleeing religious persecution in England when they emigrated to the New World to worship freely as free men. Others followed, like Quakers, Baptists, Presbyterians, and in the century Methodists and other denominations. Many had been persecuted, in one form or another, by the reigning Church of England. Now these were all protected by the First Amendment. The government shall not prohibit the free exercise of religion.

The Amendment is both simple and complex. You are free to practice religion, but religion is widely interpreted to be many things: praying in public, educating your children, running hospitals. helping the poor, defining what is true and what is not, what is right and what is wrong. These were all assumed and accepted as what Christianity was all about. Government could not abridge or prohibit these rights.

Did we become a godless culture and people because we separated the church and state? No most definitely not, since the free exercise of our faith in fact strengthened Christianity. Institutions tend to flourish in freedom, although Christianity also prospered and ironically expanded in periods of outright persecution. Take a look at the first three centuries of existence when Roman authorities tortured, burned or fed Christians to the lions and gladiators in large numbers until the Emperor Constantine became a Christian himself and declared Christianity as the official religion of the empire in 324 C.E.

A lot of precious blood has been shed over the centuries to defend our freedom of conscience inscribed in the First Amendment. While wars were fought for a lot of reasons—to end slavery (Civil War), to preserve democracy and the right of self-determination (WW1), to destroy malevolent dictatorships (WWII), etc.—we also entered these wars to protect our rights as a free and democratic people with a right to freely exercise our faith, the liberty of conscience. Let’s not throw out this principle to satisfy a narrow definition of religion.

Nor did the First Amendment say there is a wall of separation between Church and State. That was a phrase introduced by Thomas Jefferson who was a pretty good phrasemaker, but, in this instance, he was wrong.

But think about it. Everything Christianity did in 1791 as part of our faith is spread over our whole lives, from praying to taking the gospel out of the chapel and into the schools and community. It was true then. It is true now, even more so in the modern, complex world we inhabit.

What has happened is that the state—government—has expanded in much of our lives and in doing so taken it upon itself to govern in matters long associated with the Church’s place in our lives. Now, for the common sense. Would you rather have politicians in Washington or your local pastors, priests and ministers telling you what is right or wrong, what you should or shouldn’t do, what you should or shouldn’t believe?

Published as “The First Amendment was first for a reason” Mar. 4, 2019 in The Tuscaloosa News