|Diversity makes Religious Freedom Essential
For most of American history, those who generally embraced a Judeo-Christian moral framework enjoyed decisive majority status. This doesn't mean they all shared the exact same faith or were in agreement on every issue. Far from it. But it does mean that, for most of American history, there was a general sense of familiarity with and mutual respect for the religious underpinnings of our nation's politics and culture. Within that context, Christianity enjoyed somewhat of a seat of honor at the proverbial table. This isn't to suggest that most Americans were Bible-believing evangelicals, but most Americans did profess some measure of affiliation with a Christian church, denomination, or belief system - or at least a genuine (even if somewhat nominal) respect for Christianity.
All this began to change in the 20th century, particularly after the social upheaval of the 1960s and 70s. I'm aware of the cultural changes in the Roaring Twenties, but those changes were somewhat arrested by the Great Depression, World War II, and the renewed push in the 1950s for religious conservatism as evidenced, among other indicators, by the insertion of "under God" into the Pledge of Allegiance. The bottom line is that the United States stood firmly on a Judeo-Christian foundation heading into the 1960s. Since then, things have changed considerably. While I would never argue that the United States was "Christian" in any official or legal sense, there was a time when it generally favored Christianity. No more. We now live, for all intents and purposes, in a post-Christian America.
Much has been written in this blog over the specific nature of the personal and political views of the Founders when it comes to religion. We will probably never fully agree on questions concerning the true nature of the faith of men like Washington, Adams, Madison, Hamilton, and so forth, but the historical record is quite clear that all of our Founding Fathers believed in religious freedom. To the extent they differed on religious freedom, it was over what degree the government (at the state level) should favor religion and/or to what extent atheists or those without a religious belief should participate in public life. The consensus that emerged from the founding era is perhaps best represented by the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which provided for the institutional separation of Church and State and affirmed an individual's freedom of conscience.
Recognizing that the United States was never officially Christian and the culture is rapidly transforming into a post-Christian reality, many Christians today have largely abandoned any desire to impose their religious beliefs on others through public policy, but they are nevertheless hoping (even demanding) that their freedom of conscience be respected by this new post-Christian society. I believe they are right to insist on this. In fact, I will count myself among them by saying we are right to demand this.
In a famous 2006 speech on the role of religion in public life, then-Senator Barack Obama declared: "[S]ecularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square." What President Obama said then (as a senator) is just as true for the marketplace as it is for the public square. People of faith should not be expected "to leave their religion at the door before entering" the marketplace or their place of work.
Should they be expected to perform the duties to which they agreed under the terms of their employment? Of course. But the difference between employment and slavery is that the employer owns the worker's labor (within mutually agreed-upon paramaters) not the worker himself or herself. Yet I see things happening today that challenge that social contract between employer and employee - and threaten to undermine the very idea of religious freedom in our society. There are many examples which I could cite. So this article isn't too long, I will confine myself to three:
- Federal Insurance Mandates on Corporations - Forcing employers, such as Hobby Lobby, to provide insurance coverage that includes "morning after" or "week after" contraception which the owners consider to be abortion and therefore deeply repugnant to their religious beliefs concerning the sanctity of life
- "Civil Rights" Laws on Small or Home-Based Businesses - While no business should be allowed to discriminate against someone solely on the basis of that person's race, gender, color, or sexual orientation, a distinction MUST be made between an event and a person. If a photographer hired by a school to do senior portraits refuses to photograph a gay senior, that's blatant discrimination against a person and should be disallowed. But if a wedding photographer refuses to take pictures of a same-sex wedding, that's "discriminating" against an event. There is a difference, and given the First Amendment's clear affirmation of a person's right to freely exercise his or her religion, such a difference should be respected in our society. We are seeing the erosion of religious freedom in America when it comes to people of faith who own businesses.
- Going After Employees or Contractors for Off-Duty Religious Expression - When Cisco and Bank of America terminated leadership consultant Frank Turek's contract with their respective organizations, it wasn't because of his performance on the job, but rather because Turek wrote a book (on his own time) against same-sex marriage. Turek is a Christian author. Cisco and Bank of America would've been justified to issue respective statements distancing themselves from Turek's religious beliefs AND would've been right to fire him had he been proselytizing Cisco or Bank of America employees to his religious views on marriage when he was supposed to be teaching them principles of teamwork, leadership, etc., but that's not what happened. He was fired for things he said and wrote outside of his duties with Cisco and Bank of America. If it's wrong for Cisco or Bank of America to discriminate against employees and contractors for their race, gender, or sexual orientation, it should also be wrong to discriminate against them for their religion. If you disagree with that statement, then it only serves to show how much trouble our nation is in when it comes to the freedom of religion and conscience.
If the American people want to leave behind their Judeo-Christian origins and become an even more secular society, that is their right. We can argue over what the consequences of that will be or whether the Founders would approve. I'll leave that for another article. For this blog post, I'm simply saying this: If the American people wish to become more secular, that's their right. But if we want to stay true to what it means to be the United States of America, we must do so with a high degree of sensitivity and respect for those men and women of faith who wish to practice their faith.
The Founders never believed that a person's faith should only be exercised in the home or in their place of worship. They believed in the free exercise of religion - one that reached into the public square and the marketplace. The day we, as a society, reject this idea and relegate religion solely to the home and place of worship is the day we reject the most important freedom we have - the freedom of belief and conscience. When we do that, our nation will no longer resemble anything the Founders gave us.