Today, any conversation combining religion and politics leads to the conversational equivalent of spontaneous combustion.
And yet, we cannot forget where we came from.
In 1774, 19-year-old Alexander Hamilton warned that while British taxes and other oppressive practices were a threat and a burden, there was something far worse to fear.
The Quebec Act — viewed as a clear assault on faith and freedom — caused Hamilton to warn, “Remember civil and religious liberty always go together; if the foundation of the one be sapped, the other will fall of course.” (emphasis added)
Most acknowledge the colonists’ skeptical view of state religion. It can be less clear that our Founders’ intent was not to eliminate religion from government, but to free it from government control. There is a great deal of evidence that America’s Founders were influenced by Christian ideas, and there are many ways in which the Founders’ views might inform contemporary controversies. Mark David Hall posits that religion influenced them in five important ways:
First, religion influenced the view that humans require constraints. James Madison wrote in “The Federalist Papers” No. 51, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”
Second, they firmly believed that legislation should reflect ordained moral standards.
Third, religion informed the notion of liberty. According to Hall, “the Founders were far more likely to see liberty as the freedom to do what is morally correct.”
Fourth, we Americans enjoy a government inspired by the concept that we were created “in the imago Dei — the image of God.”
This all informs the fifth of their faith-inspired predicates — the idea that reasonable people of such divine origins can govern through “politics rather than force.”
Clearly, our Founders concluded that religious liberty should be prioritized and protected — but not in a manner that guards only one specific religion.
Today, consequences to religious observance are embedded within many policy considerations. And defending or regulating behaviors that are based on religious beliefs often requires persuading people for whom religious liberty isn’t a top concern. After all, if we are to have the right to practice our religion, surely others have the right not to.
That statement seems fair enough, except when religious liberty in practice — whether in perception or in reality — seems to exclude others from their basic rights. Said another way, religion can at times be — instead of a means of inclusion in the full breadth of American civil rights — an alienation of the very people who need to be persuaded to sustainably protect religious liberty.
Religious liberty, properly understood, requires liberty for all — including the most traditional of organized religions, as well as members of unpopular religious minorities and people who claim no religious affiliation. But to achieve such a complex détente, policy must reflect the loftiest principles of respect, inclusion, and dare we add, love.
Religious liberty protects important social institutions — including organized religion — whose effect on people benefits the economy, communities, family relationships, public health, civil rights and the less fortunate. If any other social institution could legitimately claim the beneficial impact that organized religion has proven, we would be stumbling over ourselves to protect and encourage it with public policy.
Alexis de Tocqueville recognized this when he said, “I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers — and it was not there ... in her fertile fields and boundless forests and it was not there ... in her rich mines and her vast world commerce — and it was not there ... in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution — and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.”
Surely it is not beyond our abilities of reason and goodness to preserve and accommodate faith — or the lack of it — in the lives of all Americans.
Rep. John Curtis represents Utah’s 3rd Congressional District. Rick B. Larsen is president of Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank that advocates for a free market economy, civil society and community-driven solutions.