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Greenstein: Thinking of freedom of religion

By: Anna Bearman | February 25, 2024

By Micah Greenstein, Guest Columnist | February 25, 2024 | Daily Memphian

Before this fleeting month filled with Black History and Valentine’s Day cards ends, Presidents’ Day is still on my mind.

February is when we celebrate the birthdays of Washington and Lincoln and honor all U.S. presidents. It seems as fitting a time as any to talk about basic American ideals.

One of the most basic of all those ideals, of course, is freedom of religion.

Freedom of religion is not a concept that originated in Judaism or Christianity. Both the church and the synagogue envisioned a society in which religious truth would be supreme and everything else subservient to it.

The biblical kings of Israel were subject to the laws of Moses and derived authority only through them. In medieval Christian Europe, the search for knowledge, known as philosophy, was the handmaiden to theology, which reigned as “the queen of sciences.”

Galileo and Copernicus were scorned and condemned because they dared to question and challenge the Church.

I could provide multiple examples of this kind to demonstrate that freedom of religion, the separation of powers between church and state, is a relatively recent phenomenon in history.

In fact, freedom of religion is a product only of our Constitutional principles adopted in 1789. Even then, while these ideas were established in the Bill of Rights at the federal level, state governments voiced strenuous opposition.

It was not until 100 years after the Declaration of Independence, in 1876, that the last state in the Union, New Hampshire, finally affirmed the principle of religious freedom by eliminating all religious tests as a prerequisite for holding public office.

Even in 2024, relatively few other nations in the world have endorsed and supported the principle of separation as we understand it here in this country. 

Separating religious power from government authority was not introduced as a matter of religious conviction. The principle was introduced as a consequence of our American ancestors’ experience, having themselves endured the pain and suffering that result when either the church seeks to impose its will upon the state, or the state seeks to control the church.

The Founders brought with them to these shores the scars of such bitter battles and vowed that the nation they molded would never bear the awfulness of such deadly conflict.

The Founders were not a band of Sunday church-goers. Benjamin Franklin wrote, “When a religion is good, I conceive that it can support itself; and when a religion cannot support itself, it is a sign of its being a bad religion.”

James Madison declared, “I have no doubt that religion and government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together.”

And finally, Thomas Jefferson observed with respect to government and religion in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association that when the American people adopted the establishment of religion clause, they built a “wall of separation between the church and state.”

I am a person of deep faith, but I also know that religion is no panacea when cloaked in politics or used for power.

Some of the worst scoundrels we have known throughout history have been among the most pious churchgoers, and some of the finest human beings ever were agnostics and atheists who never stepped inside a church or synagogue.

Religion is no passport to virtue, and humanism is no descent into hell. What a person becomes is a matter of what the person does about what the beliefs he or she espouses.

Those of us who defend the Founders’ separation of church and state are not by any means the enemy of religion. Most often, we are its staunchest defenders.

What we resent is not simply the threat to constitutional liberties, but the threat to the integrity of religion itself. 

The practice of religion in public institutions reduces religion to its lowest common denominator. Reducing the great religions of the world to the lowest commentator is like reducing all the colors of a great painting to a neutral beige.

Maybe nobody objects to it, but who wants to buy it?

Great art is not the result of one color, and neither is great religion. Every religion is the consequence of a unique and penetrating insight into the nature of reality.

Any work of art, no matter how remarkable, captures only a portion of the truth. The same goes for religion. No system of belief contains all the truth there is, because truth, like love, is a many-splendored thing. 

What makes America great, what makes life itself great, is its diversity. Each of us, because of our differences, contributes to the knowledge of all others. Each of our religious traditions expands our intellectual and spiritual frontiers.

The Founders never claimed that religion and politics should never mix. They supported a separation between church and state, because they believed that one should never dominate the other, not that one could not strengthen the other.

Freedom of religion and freedom from others coercing their one thread on the entire tapestry is critical to this experiment called America, for whenever religion and government have gotten in bed with each other, both have suffered miserably. 

What would Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson have to say about the current state of religion and state in America? They would remind us that we are not a Christian nation. We are a nation of Christians and Jews and Muslims and Buddhists and Sikhs and Confucianists, and a host of other religious adherents.

They would urge us to remember that America’s greatest strength is the right to choose what each of us will be, what we will believe, and what we wish to become as children of the One God who loves us all.

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