The US Constitution and Religious Liberty

January 9, 2015

The Wall Street Journal recently ran a fascinating op-ed by William A. Galston, “The Christian Heart of American Exceptionalism,” much of which I agree with but some of which I don’t.

Galston argues that the idea of American exceptionalism should not be discounted and that its primary source is the “durability of American religious belief” — mostly Christianity. Bravo.

This will doubtlessly come as a shock to zealots for the blurry concept of multiculturalism, which on its face dictates that all cultures are equal and that all who disagree with the notion are more or less bigoted. At a deeper level, the concept is actually rooted in resentment toward Western and American culture.

But Galston’s piece essentially argues that all cultures aren’t equal and that those grounded in the Christian faith produce the healthiest and most prosperous societies. He doesn’t say that exactly, but I think it’s a reasonable inference from his words. He does say, “The durability of American religious belief refutes the once-canonical thesis that modernization and secularization necessarily go hand in hand.”

I believe this is demonstrably true and very important, but I want to focus on a separate, though related, point Galston goes on to make.

He writes that the durability of American religious belief “is all the more remarkable because our Founders drafted a deliberately secular constitution,” though he admits that the majority of the states had established religions at the time (1789) and that the American people were pervasively Christian.

I don’t want to get hung up on semantics here, but I think the term “deliberately secular constitution” is unintentionally misleading. It is true that the Constitution prohibits religious tests for public office, which Galston points out, but let’s not stop there.

The freedom of religion and the freedom of religious worship were of such paramount importance to the Framers that they guaranteed them in the very first two clauses of the very first amendment to the Constitution, the establishment clause and the free exercise clause.

Because activist courts throughout our history have distorted the original understanding of the establishment clause, it must be emphasized that it does not mandate a strict separation of church and state; it does not prohibit all federal support of religion; it does not apply to the states at all; and the driving force behind it was a consensual dedication to the idea that the federal government should not establish a national church — because to do so would diminish religious liberty. The free exercise clause, by its very terms, expressly guarantees the freedom of worship.

So though the Constitution prohibits the formal establishment of one predominant national church or religion, it is not proactively secular and is aggressively protective of religious liberty, an idea that is inherent in the document.

There’s much more. Though historians disagree on the point, I believe that the overwhelming majority of the Framers and the larger group of the Founding Fathers were Christian, with notable exceptions. I believe that their Christian worldview led to much of the uniqueness of the Constitution, especially those provisions most critical to safeguarding our political and religious liberties.

The idea of unalienable rights flows from the Judeo-Christian precept that an all-loving God created man in his image, entitling him to dignity, freedom and rights that cannot be divested by the state. Yes, this idea was expressed in the Declaration of Independence, but it certainly flowed through to the drafting of the Constitution, which established a system of limited government for the purpose of protecting our individual liberties.

Further evidence that the Framers subscribed to the Christian worldview can be seen in their structure of government. Believing in the Fall of Man (and mankind’s depravity), as well as man’s creation in God’s image, they devised a governmental scheme to guard against man’s intrinsic and historical tendency toward absolutism. They divided and diffused governmental power by creating three coequal branches of the federal government, with an intricate system of checks and balances so that each branch would serve as a check against the others becoming too powerful. They created a bicameral legislature, divided power between the state and federal governments, and included the Bill of Rights for the same reason.

I am not so sanguine as Galston appears to be elsewhere in his piece about the continuing dominant influence of Christianity among Americans, irrespective of the findings of the Pew Research Center Galston cites.

That is indeed encouraging as far as it goes, but the reality on the ground and in practice is that militant secular forces are currently winning the “culture war” in this country and are succeeding, by political and cultural bullying, in diminishing our religious liberties.

It is wonderful that Pew confirms that so many Americans still believe in much of the historicity of Christianity, but it would be much more reassuring if more would recognize the threats their freedoms are facing, because at the core of all of our liberties is our religious liberty. If it falls, the remainder of our liberties will tumble like dominoes. And without it, the rest are far less important anyway.