Posted by: mystic444 | July 18, 2011

What is Freedom of Religion in the US Constitution?

Recently this comment was made by someone in response to an article on “Loonwatch”: Hwy [hey?] come on it’s “freedom of religion” not “freedom of religions”.

Clearly the Founding Fathers meant people were free to practise whatever form of Christianity they chose. (Provided it wasn’t one of the really crazy ones like Papacy.)

I suspect the writer may have been using sarcasm, poking fun at the unsound ideas of some people about the meaning of the First Amendment to the US Constitution. However I’m all too aware that many Christians of a fundamentalist persuasion (or a Dominionist/Christian Reconstructionist persuasion) believe precisely that, and they’re very serious about it. So I figured I’d examine this brief comment to show the blatant fallacies.

With regard to “freedom of religion” versus “freedom of religions”, it should also be pointed out that the Constitution calls for “freedom of the press”, not “freedom of the presses”. So I wonder which particular press enjoys this freedom (a Federal Government press? Or some Christian press?); and which presses are not covered by the First Amendment protection?

Also, the Constitution protects “freedom of speech”, not “freedom of speeches”. So which individual or group has this “freedom of speech”, as opposed to the speeches of all others?

If by “religion” the Founding Fathers meant only Christianity, as opposed to all other religions, that doesn’t help the case. Remember that the Constitution says: Congress shall make no law respecting an ESTABLISHMENT OF RELIGION; so if “religion” means Christianity, then the Constitution explicitly says that Christianity may not be ESTABLISHED in the USA. That completely destroys the idea that the “Fathers” in fact DID recognize Christianity as the only valid and protected religion in the USA.

The fallacy of such a statement is glaringly obvious.

Then the writer said: Clearly the Founding Fathers meant people were free to practise whatever form of Christianity they chose. (Provided it wasn’t one of the really crazy ones like Papacy.)  And this is just as “clearly” mistaken. The Founding Fathers were well aware of the difference between a “religion” and a “denomination” of a religion. And they fully intended that every religion should enjoy the protection of the “free exercise” clause.

Consider Thomas Jefferson’s delight in the phrasing of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom: Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting the words ‘Jesus Christ’, so that it should read, ‘A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;’ the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the JEW and the GENTILE, the CHRISTIAN and MOHAMMEDAN, the HINDOO and INFIDEL of every denomination. That’s from Jefferson’s autobiography. And that’s how the majority of our Founding Fathers viewed the matter of religious liberty.

Or consider the following couple of quotations from John Leland, a Baptist minister who refused to accept the Constitution until James Madison (the primary author of the Constitution, and 4th President of the USA) persuaded him that full religious liberty was protected by it: Government has no more to do with the religious opinions of men than it has with the principles of mathematics. Let every man speak freely without fear–maintain the principles that he believes–worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods; and let government protect him in so doing. And again: The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence; whereas all should be equally free, JEWS, TURKS [MUSLIMS], PAGANS and CHRISTIANS. Test oaths and established creeds should be avoided as the worst of evils.

Then there is the “Treaty of Peace and Friendship between The United States and the Bey and Subjects of Tripoli of Barbary”, which was initiated in 1796 during the administration of the first President – George Washington – and was completed and ratified under the administration of the second President – John Adams – in 1797. That was just 10 years after the ratification of the US Constitution, and shows how those early Fathers felt about whether or not our government was a “Christian government”. Article 11 of that Treaty says: As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen [Muslims]; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan [Muslim] nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

Note that this treaty says that the Government of the United States of America is NOT, IN ANY SENSE, founded on the Christian religion, and there is no conflict with Islam.

It’s true that some “Fathers” (like Patrick Henry) wanted the establishment of a generic Christianity as the State established and protected religion; but fortunately they were soundly defeated by the overwhelming majority. John Leland and other Baptists and Quakers would never have accepted the Constitution otherwise.

No, our Constitution provided not only for the protection of all denominations of Christianity, but all other religions as well as Christianity.


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