At our Bluegrass service at the Old Meeting House in Rocheport, Missouri, July 2, I shared thoughts and musings about the relationship of the religion to the republic, and how founders crafted the boundaries of that relationship into the First Amendment to the Constitution. Many people at that service asked that I share those words with a broader audience. And here they are:
The First Amendment has two clauses that directly bear upon religious practice. There are the so called “non establishment” and “free exercise” clauses. It reads this way: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
What the non-establishment clause means is that the government, the state, should not establish any religion as normative, the religion of the realm, the official or state-sponsored religion, or a religion that speaks for all other religions. Put it in historical perspective: The founders had quite enough of the monarch, the government, imposing one state church on all citizens. For us the meaning is clear: No governmental or state institution should endorse any religious expression. Yes, that means courthouses, public schools and all the rest. No state institutions endorsing one religion as the only religion. It can teach about it. Values are shaped because of them. But they cannot be endorsed and we don’t want it so.
What the free exercise clause means is that the government in no way should repress or interfere in any religious expression, much less persecute people because of it. A diversity of religious expression is expected and they are to be left to their own way. As long as they don’t break any laws of the land they are free to determine their own beliefs, mission and practices. Where it gets murky, of course, is exactly at that point: When does freedom of religion conflict with general laws for all citizens? The Branch Davidians in Waco? Christian Science adherents who don’t seek medical treatment for sick children? Where is the line? That’s where the courts have to step in and make some judgments. And we have many legal precedents. Most usually the courts have been fairly conservative on this score, not treading on individual religious rights except where violations seem egregious. Most of the time they want to leave it to the religious communities to handle their own affairs. But what happens when they don’t? How about clergy abuse of minors? That becomes a civil matter, not just a religious one.
Today our immigration patterns are much broader than the European migrations of the first few centuries. Today our migrations come from all over the globe, from virtually every continent, and along with that, every religion. We are now the most religiously diverse country in the world, and it’s not just different shades of Christians with a few Jews sprinkled in for good measure. No, it includes all major branches of all major religions – Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and many more.
And guess what? On this July 4th we are able to say, proud to say, that our Constitution, our First Amendment, is the perfect governance for such a time as this. We neither establish any religion nor limit the freedom of exercise of any religion. Our founders would not even recognize our present way of life, so different is it from their own time, but the principles they put in place still work. And for that we should all be grateful to be part of a democracy that extends religious freedom and other freedoms to all of us. The Statue of Liberty beckons people to a way of life and they have and do come. And our robust religious diversity is a sign that, in this regard, the American experiment has worked and is working famously.