Many of America’s founders defended religious liberty, believing it grounded on the duty men and women have to worship their Creator. As late as the 1990s, Democrats and Republicans were able to work together to protect that liberty, but unfortunately, the political left has begun to abandon religious freedom.
As the 2020 presidential campaign heats up, conservatives would do well to reflect on two important speeches made last fall that were virtually ignored by the media. In September, President Trump gave an excellent address at the United Nations where he made it clear that religious freedom is not just an American constitutional right, it is a God-given right that should be respected across the globe. A month later, Attorney General William Barr made virtually the same argument in a speech at the University of Notre Dame.
As late as the 1990s, Democrats and Republicans were able to work together to protect religious liberty. Most notably, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 passed in the House without a dissenting vote, was approved 97 to 3 by the Senate, and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton.
Unfortunately, the political left has begun to abandon religious freedom. The Obama Administration showed little concern for religious liberty when it required businesses to provide contraceptives and abortifacients to employees, even when business owners had religious convictions against doing so. It also offered a rare challenge to the doctrine of ministerial exception, a legal protection which holds that religious groups should be free to choose, in the words of Chief Justice John Roberts, “who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission.”
Not to be outdone, then-presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke announced in October that churches that hold disfavored views on same-sex marriage should lose their tax-exempt status. He apparently views this important religious liberty protection as a “reward” that can be withdrawn when the government disagrees with the theology of a church, mosque, or synagogue.
In the academy, Professors Marci Hamilton, Brian Leiter, Richard Schragger, John Corvino, Micah Schwartzman, and others have made well-publicized arguments criticizing religious liberty. These scholars have penned multiple works with titles such as Why Tolerate Religion? and “What if Religion Is Not Special?”
In his United Nations speech advocating religious liberty, President Trump made it clear that religion is, in fact, special. He observed:
The United States is founded on the principle that our rights do not come from government; they come from God. This immortal truth is proclaimed in our Declaration of Independence and enshrined in the First Amendment to our Constitution’s Bill of Rights. Our Founders understood that no right is more fundamental to a peaceful, prosperous, and virtuous society than the right to follow one’s religious convictions.
He is absolutely correct. As I argue in my recently published book Did America Have a Christian Founding?, Americans embraced a robust view of religious liberty precisely because they believed that it was a God-given right. Colonial leaders such as Roger Williams, William Penn, Elisha Williams, Samuel Davies, Isaac Backus, and John Leland regularly made biblical and theological arguments to support this freedom. So did the civic leaders who crafted our constitutional republic.
Many founders believed that religious liberty is grounded on the duty men and women have to worship their Creator. A fine example of this is George Mason’s 1776 draft of Article XVI of Virginia’s Declaration of Rights:
That as religion, or the duty which we owe to our divine and omnipotent Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be governed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore that all men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience, unpunished and unrestrained by the magistrate [emphasis added].
Mason’s draft of Article XVI was reprinted throughout the states and had an important impact on subsequent state constitutions and the national Bill of Rights. But it was not the draft that became law. James Madison, in his first significant public act, didn’t deny that individuals have a duty to worship God, but he objected to the use of “toleration” because it implies that religious liberty is a grant from the state that could be revoked.
The Virginia Convention agreed with Madison and amended Article XVI to make it clear that “the free exercise of religion” is a right, not a privilege given by the state. Like Virginia, the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, which was largely drafted by John Adams, grounds religious freedom in the “duty of all men in society, publicly and at stated seasons, to worship the Supreme Being, the great Creator and Preserver of the universe.”
President Washington agreed with Madison that it was far too late in the day to speak of religious “toleration.” In his wonderful 1790 letter to the “Hebrew Congregation” in Newport, Rhode Island, he noted that all citizens
possess alike liberty and conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
Like Mason, Madison, Adams, and Washington, President Trump and Attorney General Barr recognize that religious liberty is a God-given freedom that must be robustly protected, both in America and throughout the world. As we contemplate who we should vote for in November, we should remember which political party is most committed to protecting what many founders called “the sacred right of conscience.”
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The featured image is a study for a mosaic in the Wisconsin State Capital, “Government and Liberty” (c. 1912), by Kenyon Cox (1856-1919), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.