Taking Liberties: Why Religious Freedom Doesn’t Give You the Right to Tell Other People What to Do

UnknownWas America founded as a Christian nation? Robert Boston* equates that view of history with the creationist view of biology – both being equally uncontaminated by facts.

The Constitution never mentions Christ – nor even God. It mentions religion just twice: in the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”) and in Article VI barring any religious test for office. Mighty odd if they were setting up a “Christian nation.”

In fact, as Boston points out in his book Taking Liberties, the founders wrote the First Amendment with no thought of Christians versus non-Christians. Unknown-2Rather, their concern was to protect Christians from each other! The “Christian nation” idea would have made no sense to them in a milieu dominated by conflicts among Christian sects: Roger Williams exiled from Massachusetts for annoying the reigning Puritans; Quakers hanged on Boston Common; Virginia preachers jailed for promoting the wrong kind of Christianity; and, before that, Tyndale burned at the stake for publishing the Bible in English, and Europe’s Thirty Years War with mass slaughter of Christians by Christians. “Enough!” they said. The America they created would be different – in fact, unique in world annals till then. They were not anti-religious but very much anti religious persecution. That’s what the First Amendment was written to prevent.

It’s a supreme irony that while religious zealots view the First Amendment’s separation of church and state as some kind of thumb in their eyes, a crime against religion, in fact it’s the best thing that ever happened for religion in America. It’s often debated why religion remains so strong in America while dying throughout Europe. Some say it’s due to Europe’s cushier welfare state versus U.S. “harshness.” That’s nonsense – those differences are marginal. The bigger difference is that whereas state-backed religion in Europe has stultified and grown irrelevant to people’s lives, America’s constitutional secularism has forced religious sects to compete for congregants by staying relevant.

images-1As Boston says, while people basing their politics on religion invoke what they deem universal truths, not even all Christians agree about such alleged truths – as evidenced, again, by all the Christians massacred throughout history over such disagreements. But such differences of opinion are “kind of the point of America,” Boston writes. We “built a framework that allows us to disagree, yet still live together in peace.”

The book’s key theme is that U.S. fundamentalist Christians exploit claims of religious freedom for what are really efforts to preach to captive audiences (like school kids) and force their religion on others, often by resort to deception and lies. Boston wonders if they’ve actually lost faith in their faith – in their ability to spread their message because it’s such a good message. Certainly fundamentalists have ample means for doing that. But is their message so inherently weak that they must resort to coercive and deceptive means to spread it?

If you want to believe in God, believe you’re going to Heaven and I’m going to Hell, I don’t agree, but I get it. But what I never can get is why people with such beliefs so often have felt a mission to torture and exterminate those believing differently. That’s exactly what ISIS is doing. If you really believe in an omnipotent God, why would he need you to deal with heretics? Why wouldn’t his own arrangements amply and appropriately sort out such problems, with no need for human intermeddling?

Unknown-3Just like most people, I believe my own dogmas are true and right. But the one dogma I hold above all others is the libertarian principle against forcing others to think or act as I would prefer.

* Boston works for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. He also collects ancient coins and has bought them from me for many years.

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12 Responses to “Taking Liberties: Why Religious Freedom Doesn’t Give You the Right to Tell Other People What to Do”

  1. Philomath Says:

    Interesting Post. I would certainly agree with you that religion should not give anyone the right to tell others what to do. However it becomes a little more complicated if you ask whether any belief should give anyone the right to tell others what to do.

    Belief in science and rationality would be a good start, but what if it’s beyond science and rationality. Of course there are things that science can’t explain, these are consciousness, qualia, feelings, love etc. but still those don’t impose that you tell people what to do. But what if there are things of great importance?

    Subjects like morality, governance, killing, eugenics, harming animals considered pests, certain types of technology like human cloning, do not have a clear-cut answer, yet they are important enough, that you can’t just let them happen if you believe they’re wrong.

    So what do you do?

  2. rationaloptimist Says:

    The principle against telling other people what to do is not absolute. More particularly my principle is that if society or government tells people what to do, it had better have a darn good reason, that entails the general welfare. Vaccination might be a good example!

  3. Andrew Semeiks Says:

    The late 18th century was the latter period of the enlightenment when the Christian Church dogma, including its underpinnings of the trinity, were seriously questioned and discounted by many. This was a low period of Christian influence among the thinking class in the colonies. Some of the founders, but not all, shared this scepticism and their positions were reflected in the founding documents as well. The period beginning about 1790, known as the Second Great Awakening, saw a marked increase in membership in organized churches and a decline in scepticism, rationalism, and deism.

  4. Greg Says:

    A well written essay. I agree completely with it’s premise. The central question regarding when it is ok to tell others what to do is not so mysterious a problem when one looks at it with some level of objectivity.

    Can the State tell individuals to get vaccinated? Yes. Can the State or a religion tell others they must believe in a particular interpretation of the scriptures? No. The difference is the degree to which a verifiable truth can be identified. In our country, it’s often the role of the courts to find such truths when a dispute arises regarding religious or other freedoms.

    That vaccination is a benefit to individuals and society as a whole is an objective fact that can be proven by any person simply by directly observing the effects. No knowledgeable and rational person can deny these obvious beneficial effects, given adequate consideration is given to certain patients who for known medical reasons should not get vaccinated.

    Most dogmatic religious viewpoints can not achieve this level of evidentiary support. This is one reason different branches of the Christian religion often don’t agree. If Christianity did become the only guiding principle for our State, the debate would degrade to a question about which branch of religion is “more” correct. With no clear-cut, obvious truth to provide a guidepost this becomes a very slippery slope. This is probably what is happening in the middle east where we see violent fragmentation of the Muslim faith and extremism taking hold.

    There are, of course, many areas where there is no obvious objective truth. Abortion is a case in point. These is no obvious milestone in the reproductive process where the human cells become an actual person. There is room for interpretation. Continued public debate in such situations is warranted, regardless of ones personal beliefs on the matter. In my view it is probably inappropriate for the State to tell individuals how they should view abortion, rather it should be left to one’s individual conscience after listening to both sides of the issue.

    There are many moral issues to wrestle with in our society. They are all worthy of debate, particularly when no obvious right answer is at hand. But we can not allow one dogmatic belief to hold sway while society deals with such questions. Our country was founded on the idea every person has the freedom to decide for themselves. The right to belief and act the way one wishes is a cherished principle in this country. This right is good as long as enjoyment of a freedom doesn’t interfere with the rights and freedoms of others.

  5. Philomath Says:

    Well put Greg. Dogmatic beliefs, clearly should not be imposed on anyone. I would agree that you should be able to do what you would like as long as it doesn’t interefer with anyone, but how would you define that.

    Examples are: Industry producing carbon dioxide which adds to the greenhouse effect. Drugs which only harm you, or even enhance you and give you an advantage. Free or Hate Speach that may psychologically affect others. What if you want to create a clone of yourself. What about farming animals for their fur. What if you can convince “not so informed people” to act on their own free will to do something not so good, because you understand how their psychology works. What if something is believed to harm people but cannot be proved 100% scientifically as with most things like cigarettes, pesticides, genetically modified food.

  6. Allen Brower Says:

    I recommend that you all read Matthew Stewart’s latest book, “Nature’s God, The Heretical Origins of the American Republic” for another take on the argument against the Christian Nation claim. It’s an eye-opening different perspective on that part of our history and Founders and the heritage they left us.

    Allen Brower

  7. Lee Says:

    At the risk of posting the same reply to two different posts, one way to distinguish when it is okay to control others is democracy. Setting up and working within a democratic system will yield results that are better than any other approach. One of its strengths is that we can always vote again … so, continue advocating for your positions!

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