Each week, the Watcher's Council hosts a forum, as well as a contest for best post among the Council members. This weeks forum question, "Is Religious Freedom Seriously Threatened In America?" I have been kindly invited to respond.
If one defines religious freedom as the right to be left alone to live according to the dictates of one's religion and the freedom to impart one's religious values and morality to one's children, than yes, religious freedom is today under mortal threat in America. The attack on religious freedom is a component of the left's larger effort to do away with the Judeo-Christian religions in this country. To understand the threat to religious freedom, one needs to understand how the threat manifests within the context of this larger effort.
When socialism was born in the crucible of the French Revolution, its founders immediately began a brutal war on the Catholic Church and its clergy with the goal of eliminating the Judeo-Christian religion from their country. Denis Diderot, a hero of the Revolution, proposed to his fellow revolutionaries that they strangle the last priest with the "guts of the last king." The left's war on the Judeo-Christian religions had begun, and it has never ended since.
The Judeo-Christian religions, with their emphasis on the sanctity of individual life, respect for family and sexual mores, must be removed for the left to succeed in remaking Western civilization under the auspices of an omnipotent government -- a government free to use its police powers to create a new order of ostensible social and economic equality. Simply put, the socialist left needs to eliminate the Judeo-Christian religions so that they can replace God with government as the final source of morality, laws and, indeed, approved thought.
In whatever nation they take root and at whatever historical period, the left's playbook for attacking religion has always been the same, at least in those places where they could not simply ban the Judeo-Christian religions. Step one is to marginalize religion in society. Step two is to intercede in between the family and the child, to take over children's education and impart left wing values. The third and final step is to use the police powers of the state to establish the primacy over religious conscience, in essence delegitimizing religious values and putting the final nail in its coffin.
In America, step one for the left began near a century ago, when the ACLU, an organization explicitly founded to advance socialism, began to bring cases before left leaning courts arguing that the First Amendment's Establishment Clause - That Congress shall make no laws respecting the establishment of religion - meant that there must be complete separation between church and state.
Even the most superficial look to our history will show that such was never the intent of our Founders. The sole purpose of the Establishment Clause was to prevent our government from giving preferential treatment to any Judeo-Christian religious sect, as was the custom in Europe. For but one example, the same Congress that drafted the First Amendment also passed the Northwest Ordinance "which declares that “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged;” and early Congresses proceeded to make grants of land to serve religious purposes and to fund sectarian education among the Indians."
None-the-less, the ACLU argued, on the basis of a single phrase in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson in 1802 to the Danbury Baptists, that the Establishment Clause in the modern era should be read to create a "wall of separation between Church and State." Our Courts, the most dangerous branch of our government, reinterpreted the Establishment Clause and, ever since the 1947 decision in Everson, have been engaged in systematically removing all of the symbols, trappings and influence of the Judeo Christian religions from our schools and public institutions. This line of cases was taken to the radical extreme in the 2002 Lawrence v. Texas case, when the Supreme Court majority held that religion can no longer be viewed as providing a "rational basis" for our nation's laws.
A second component to this initial step, to marginalize religion, has been to muzzle political speech by religious organizations through restrictions in the tax code. Throughout our history, our religious institutions were free to speak without limit in the political realm. And indeed, in 1776, the Congregationalist and Presbyterian sects in large measure drove our American Revolution on religious grounds, equating the concept of British liberty with biblical scripture. When Benjamin Franklin proposed a design for the Great Seal of the United States in 1776, he suggested that the motto adorning the seal be "Resistance To Tyrants Is Obedience To God." That was a very pithy and accurate summation of religious thought in the colonies at the time of our Founding. And yet in 1954, the left, led by then Senator Lyndon Johnson, made changes to the tax code that allowed the IRS to strip any religious organization of its tax exempt status for overt political speech, thus circumscribing what church leaders could say from the pulpit and effectively dampening concerted action by congregations.
The second step in the war on religion in America could be termed a war on families. It has been an effort to put the state in place of the family, with the goal being to impart socialist values in place of the family's own religious, moral and ethical values. When Hillary Clinton said many years ago that it "takes a village to raise a child," that was a very pithy summation of the left's mindset. An even clearer example came a few years ago from Prof. Melissa Harris Perry.
Once the left claims the children, what they teach them begins with sex. The social justice values that the left seeks to teach come later. It is sex that provides the bedrock foundation for the left's efforts at supplanting the family and establishing the primacy of socialist values. It is not hard to see why.
Sex is a basic human instinct. Untamed, it is an animalistic instinct, devoid of emotional content or commitment and, while resulting in the greatest of physical pleasures, it is also an act that can have the most profound physical and emotional consequences. A major concern of the Judeo-Christian religions has always been to make sex only acceptable in relationships between a married couple, man and woman. This significantly eliminates the potential negative consequences of sex and places maximum value on the basic building block of society, the family. So it has been since time immemorial, and that is why the left long ago opted to use sex as its primary tool in its effort to have the state stand in loco parentis. As Bookworm Room wrote a few years ago, "The state has driven a wedge into the family unit, using the most potent endorphin driver available to motivate and reorient young people."
The mother of this movement in America was the socialist founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger. In the early part of the 20th century, she led the movement to legalize birth control devices and abortion, casting herself explicitly as an implacable opponent of Christianity and the moral dimension to sex that the Judeo Christian religions provide. We can see her efforts very much at work today.
At law, the left has been successful in supplanting the family when it comes to sex. As a result of recent court decisions, a girl today of any age can walk into a pharmacy and purchase birth control and even abortifacients without parental knowledge. In NYC and in many other locales, birth control and abortifacients are made freely available through public school systems and a child or teenager may access them without any parental notification or approval. In California and many other states, a sixteen year old girl can "get birth control, get abortions, and get treated for sexually transmitted diseases, all without a parents’ knowledge."
In a brilliant piece of analysis, Bookworm Room, in an article Sex and State Power written for the American Thinker, examines the relationship between sex, individuality and the goals of the left and other statists. Therein she gives numerous examples of how the left, often through our schools and under the ostensible guise of teaching tolerance, is seeking to normalize and promote values and mores concerning sexuality that are decoupled from, and antithetical to, religious morality. This is, she argues convincingly, a necessary step in moving the child towards socialism. Indeed, as Bookworm sums up:
[I]f you're getting an itchy feeling between your shoulder blades when you contemplate your child's hyper-sexualized reading list and gender-bending sex education curriculum, you need not fear that you have turned into a repressed, homophobic Victorian. Instead, there's an excellent chance that you are someone with a deep respect for individual freedom who resents the Leftists' efforts to co-opt your child's body as a necessary sacrifice to the State.
And that brings us to the third and final stage of the assault on religion, using the police power of the state to establish the primacy of state approved thought and values, and to use that same police power to punish those who would stand by their religious values and conscience. We are seeing that play out as a result of the gay rights movement and Obama's HHS mandate, as well as in the public realm where the left heaps outrageous outrage on any who would, in any way, fall afoul of their socialist values, either at the personal level, such as with Brendan Eich, or the state level, as we see today with the response to Indiana's RFRA law, addressed at length in an especially insightful post by Bookworm Room here.
If you wonder how the "gay rights" movement has exploded so quickly onto our national stage, you need look no further than our Courts. Left wing judges have stood primed for the last century to move our nation ever father to the left. In the last few years, laws defining marriage as between a man and a woman are being struck down left and right by judges using an utterly laughable interpretation of the Equal Rights clause of our 14th Amendment. No one can argue, with a straight face, that gay rights were in the contemplation of the people who drafted and passed the 14th Amendment in 1868. And yet our Courts have wholly at their whim reinterpreted that provision and now use this novel legal theory to uphold a newly found Constitutional right to gay marriage. At the Supreme Court, last year they refused to hear and sustain a California state wide referendum on Proposition 8 while, in the next breath, struck down the federal Defense of Marriage Act. That set the stage for the "gay rights" movement to begin the final push, targeting Christians and Jews who refuse to violate their religious conscience by taking any action to validate "gay marriage."
This war on religious freedom is also at the heart of the Obamacare HHS mandate, discussed at length here, that all Americans purchase insurance policies that include, and that all employers provide coverage that includes, free birth control and abortifacients. This is a gross intrusion on the rights of religious conscience, and yet the Obama administration provided only a very narrow category of people and institutions who would be allowed to object. This could not be more of a fundamental attack on the freedom of religion. The final decision on whether this HHS mandate will stand and in what contexts still, in many ways, remains up in the air, though the Supreme Court, in a bare majority 5-4 decision, did rule in favor of one religious employer, Hobby Lobby, in their opposition to the mandate. The Beckett Fund is handling a significant number of these cases.
One would think that rights of religious conscience would be a final and effective bulwark against these attacks from the left on religious freedom. After all, immediately after the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, the Free Exercise clause states that "Congress shall make no laws . . . prohibiting the free exercise [of religion.]" Ironically, the same letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists in 1802 that the left seized upon to interpret the Establishment Clause and start its war on religion in America, the one containing the phrase "a wall of separation between Church and state," reads in succeeding sentences like our modern religious freedom laws -- i.e., Indiana's proposed RFRA and the other similar federal and state laws. Jefferson talks therein about the "rights of conscience" and his full expectation that man "has no natural right in opposition to his social duties." But whether our leftward bending Courts will uphold rights of religious conscience from attacks by the left looks doubtful. It was just last year that the Supreme Court refused to review a New Mexico decision punishing a wedding photographer for refusing to service a gay wedding. If that stands, then there is no longer any right to religious freedom in this country and the First Amendment's Free Exercise clause is a nullity.
So, is religious freedom under attack in America? Not only yes, but it's been under continuous, sustained attack for the past century on multiple fronts, and now is fighting a rear guard action, perhaps on the final battlefield. This is a zero sum game for the left, and they will not stop their attacks until the Judeo-Christian religions have been delegitimized in this nation. It is quite literally a battle for the heart and soul of this nation, and if religion loses, the left will become permanently ascendent. Those who value religion need to understand the many battlefields on which the left is attacking religion in this nation and figure out ways to effectively fight back in each of them. Clearly though, one of the most central concerns must be to demand reforms to our out of control Court system, where unelected judges make of themselves petty tyrants, taking questions of social policy with profound implications for our nation out of the hands of the people.