This article appeared in the December 2006/January 2007 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe to our monthly print edition, click here.
WHEN JAMES MADISON agitated to make religious freedom fundamental to the United States Constitution, it was not from hostility to religion. It was from hostility to established religion, with its presumption of an authority in worldly affairs that only an elected government should exercise. The first freedom listed in the Bill of Rights tells us that Congress shall "make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" -- a rule that is just as important in its second half as in its first.
However, the free exercise of religion involves living by values that are not always endorsed by the secular state. In the long run, therefore, there are bound to be tensions between religious freedom and secular power, and these periodically come to the surface, especially in America, where the secular culture of the East Coast cities remains profoundly suspicious toward the forms of life that are rumored to exist beyond the Appalachians. Radical secularists are now using the "no establishment" clause to chase religion out of public life. In response backwoods evangelicals are using the "free exercise" clause to invite religion in. Book upon book, article upon article, has been thrown into the conflict between them, and the ordinary citizen, content to live by the Ten Commandments and expecting them to be quietly acknowledged from time to time by those who govern him, looks with some bewilderment on a battle that he had assumed to have ended in a compromise two centuries ago.
Radical secularists claim Madison for their own. What he sought, however, was not a retreat of religion from public life but a habit of toleration. He hoped for a political order in which people could differ in their religion but nevertheless live peacefully side by side. Such a political order had obtained neither in Puritan Massachusetts nor in Puritan England. But it obtains today in America, not despite the faith of the American people but because of it. It is the very extrovert quality of American religion that inspires people to claim the space in which to exercise their faith, and to fence that space with genial flower beds of goodwill towards their skeptical neighbors.
THE CONTRAST WITH EUROPE IS TELLING. The dwindling of faith among the Europeans has left them unprotected against the belligerent dogmatism of Islam, which does not merely flow into every undefended space but actively excludes its rivals, once installed. In the face of the paranoid posture of European Muslims, the governments and people of Europe are relinquishing one by one the freedoms acquired over centuries, including the freedom of conscience. Few assaults on free speech in Western democracies have been as vehement as that now carried out in the name of Islam by its European adherents, who often regard public criticism of their faith as an intolerable offense, and seek by threats and demonstrations to silence it.
In September of this past year Robert Redeker, a French schoolteacher, published an article in Le Figaro arguing that Christians, when incited to violence in the name of their religion, can find no authority for this in the life and words of Christ as recorded in the Gospel, while Muslims, incited to violence in the name of their religion, can find plenty of support for their belligerence in the Koran. Although manifestly true, this statement was found to be offensive by a section of Muslim opinion, Mr. Redeker received credible death-threats against himself and his family, and he and they now live in hiding under police protection.
The reaction of the French authorities typifies the European response. Critics of Islam are not defended, but marginalized, by removing them from society and keeping them under house arrest. Instead of going after those who threatened Mr. Redeker with every weapon available to the law, instead of passing legislation of whatever severity might be required to restore the freedoms that have been gratuitously removed by the newcomers, the European authorities try to bluff their way to peace through appeasement, while pushing Islam's critics off the stage. It is now increasingly rare for public discussion of Islam and its stance to proceed with the open-minded concern for truth that is necessary if the discussion is to get us anywhere.
Europe has seen private enterprise censorship of the Islamist kind before: notably when the Fascists worked to take power in Italy and the Nazis in Germany. But Europe has not learned the lesson. People living under secular government, and enjoying the comforts of a modern economy, easily become blind to the deep religious need of our species. They readily assume that religious passions can be quelled by a dose of Enlightenment, and that a sprinkling of skepticism will suffice to quell those perverted passions, like Nazism and fascism, that arise in religion's place. And when the truth suddenly displays itself, they stare aghast, utter abject apologies, and quickly retreat from the field.
THERE IS A FURTHER DIMENSION TO ALL THIS, and it goes to the heart of what political freedom means. A Washington-based pressure group is currently campaigning to remove state funding from a marriage guidance network that uses the Bible as a leading source. The group argues that by funding this network, the state violates the "no establishment" clause. You can see how the argument goes, and the kind of plausibility that it might achieve. What is important, however, is the result. If the campaign (now in the courts) is successful, the only marriage guidance available to the poor will be guidance that does not refer to the principal source of Jewish and Christian wisdom -- and which will therefore be committed to a secular view of marriage and to the propagation of secular remedies for what are, in the majority of cases, spiritual problems. Religion will be effectively expelled from one of the areas where it is most needed, which is the repairing of damaged human relations.
Moreover, those who use the Bible in counseling do so for the very good reason that it contains better advice, and a wiser understanding of human nature, than just about any other relevant text. Even if they don't believe the underlying theology, they are entitled to belief in its utility. But that may not be enough to obtain the funding needed to practice. Hence the pursuit of an abstract "freedom of religion," leads to a "freedom from religion." This in turn leads to a narrowing of options, with the result of promoting and privileging those which are least likely to do any good.
OF COURSE, the withdrawal of state funding does not prevent anyone from using the Bible in counseling. But it ensures that the Bible won't be used. This ideological vetting of state funds tends exactly in the direction that the "no establishment" clause was designed to prevent. When the Constitution was drawn up, the state was not in the business of taking charge of civil society, or of displacing religious and private foundations from their central role in education, health care, and the provision of social services. The "no establishment" clause did not forbid those things: it committed the state to remain neutral in the face of the existing spiritual rivalries.
Today, however, the state has intruded into civil society in a way that the Founders would never have envisaged. It does not merely fund the majority of schools: it controls them. It funds all kinds of institutions, from hospitals to rehabilitation centers, that would previously have been funded by private donations. The "no establishment" clause, interpreted as the activists would wish, therefore obliges the state to chase religion out of the institutions of society. Having absorbed those institutions, the state fumigates them against the religious bug. But it does this religiously, seeking out all the nooks and crannies where religion might take hold, and squirting them with ideological disinfectant. And because the state controls the institutions where orthodoxies arise -- schools and universities -- it is in effect making an establishment of religion. The religion is atheism; but atheism pursued with a kind of vindictive vehemence that has all the marks of faith.
In the face of this new persecutory zeal directed at ordinary believers, we need to remind ourselves of what Madison wished to achieve. The important thing for Madison was not to prevent the official endorsement of one religion, but to promote the official permission of others. The state can make public acknowledgement of the majority faith, while upholding the religious freedom of minorities. All that is necessary is that the majority religion should itself permit this. Christianity (in the form presented by its founder) manifestly both permits religious freedom and requires it. Islam, however, neither requires religious freedom nor really permits it.
On the other hand, no grant of religious freedom should overlook the deep importance of faith in the life of the believer. In granting this freedom you are not granting a simple permission to do some trivial thing, but the right to shape one's life, and the life of one's family according to a complete and comprehensive plan. This right cannot be granted without permitting many things that the atheist culture finds offensive: the right to pray, to worship, to persuade; the right to acknowledge God in one's daily life, and to dedicate one's thoughts and deeds in public gestures. Hence religious freedom, even when it can be granted, will press up against the very limits of the space in which our freedoms are exercised. And if it can be granted at all, it is only because a particular religious tradition has both occupied that space, and also relinquished it. In America, that tradition is the Christian tradition. If we value religious freedom, therefore, we should value the Christian faith as its guarantee. Should radical secularism ever triumph, so that the voice of Christianity is silenced in our public life, this would not be a gain in religious freedom but a loss of it. For it would leave the field open to the two contestants that are now seeking to claim it -- militant atheism and militant Islam, both of which regard their critics as enemies.