Tuesday, January 04, 2011


"We are teaching the world the great truth that Governments do better without Kings & Nobles than with them. The merit will be doubled by the other lesson that Religion flourishes in greater purity, without than with the aid of Government." -James Madison

Where allowed
We've managed to get through another Christmas season, this time mercifully free of most of the controversy that so often seem to show up in recent decades. Some dramatically call it the "war on Christmas," when any public display of Christmas cheer is shouted down, sued, and attacked by bitter, cheerless folks demanding that they never be reminded of the holiday. By December 25, a lot of worn out shoppers and celebrators might agree.

I would argue that a manger in front of the court house is no more an endorsement of Christianity than arches out front of a house make it a McDonald's, but some are more sensitive. They don't want to be wished a "Merry Christmas" because it is culturally harmful or offensive. What about Hanukkah, they ask? What about Kwanzaa? They insist that religious tolerance demands we do not single out a single event and merely wish people a "Happy Holiday."

To be certain, religious freedom is a deeply important concept for the United States. Part of the very foundation of the country, religious freedom from oppressive state religions featured in both the early settlement and the creation of the United States as a country. Puritans fleeing oppression by the Church of England joined Jews fleeing oppression by just about everyone, seeking a land where there was no established faith and plenty of land to just worship the way they wanted.

As time went on, however, individual colonies in the United States began to establish their own religions. By the time the US constitution was finalized, nine of the thirteen colonies had an official religion, and only two (Maryland and Rhode Island) had no official established religion.

Although most philosophers and thinkers of the 17th and 18th century tended to either presume the supremacy of Christianity or simply urged obedience to the local established religion, some did not. The most vocal proponents of religious tolerance were James Madison, George Mason, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick Henry. Henry and Mason held that one ought to tolerate other faiths, Jefferson and Madison held that one should have freedom of conscience to believe and think what one would.

But it was Roger Williams, the founder of the Rhode Island colony (the smallest state in America), who is considered the father of religious freedom in America. He split with John Cotton on the topic of liberty and was banished from the Massachusetts colony over his dispute. "Forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils," he said in a letter, and opposing the idea of using the civil power to compel a single religious ideal or faith, he warned:
"If the civil magistrates be Christians or members of the church, able to prophesy in the church of Christ, ... they are bound by the command of Christ to suffer opposition to their doctrine with meekness and gentleness, and to be so far from striving to subdue their opposites with the civil sword, that they are bound with patience and meekness to wait if God peradventure will please to grant repentance unto their opposites... The sword may make a whole nation of hypocrites."
Williams argued that forced religion did violence not only to the civilization it was practiced in, but to the faith itself. Faith is a private issue in terms of acceptance or rejection, he argued, and while one ought to believe and obey God, that is between God and the person in question.

It was from this foundation, almost unheard of at the time, that religious freedom as a concept grew in the United States.
"Every man, conducting himself as a good citizen, and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions, ought to be protected in worshiping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience." -George Washington
With that background it is easy to see how the principles of religious freedom are so dear to the United States and its culture. Compulsion to one religion or another is not just annoying, but violates a deeply held worldview by most Americans, who believe freedom of conscience is paramount.

The US Government does its best to stay out of religious issues, even going so far as to allow certain things which are usually illegal (eating peyote, for instance) in religious worship. Religious exemptions to acts such as swearing to tell the truth before testifying, serving in the military, and serving on juries all are allowed out of this attempt to protect the freedom of religion. Yet even with that in mind, one has to understand that complete, unlimited freedom is impossible in this as in all other rights.

The US Constitution guarantees the right to religious assembly and bans congress from either establishing or banning any religious expression, but that does not mean you can have any religion whatsoever. Like all rights, religious freedom is subordinate to other rights. Life is the primary right; without life, one cannot have any other rights. Liberty is the second, for without the freedom to act and think as one wishes, there cannot be any expression of any other rights.

All rights are hedged by the amount of damage their free expression may cause others. Rather than a balance between liberty and restraint -- which suggests an even amount of each on a scale -- a proper perspective is required. Enough of one and not too much of the other. This perspective is tricky and must over time be shifted slightly to match changes in technology and events, but must be maintained in order to have a civilization or society of any kind.

On one side, unrestrained, total liberty in all actions and behavior demolishes society and reduces liberty by making the most morally unrestrained and tyrannical free to exert their oppression on all others. On the other, a loss of the expression of rights is instant tyranny by the government. Care must be taken not to climb onto the horse with such vigor that you fall off the other side.

In terms of religious faith we are free to believe whatever we wish, no matter how insane or silly, as long as we do not express that faith in a manner which harms others. You can believe that sacrificing virgins to a volcano will appease Gaia and end global warming, but if you try to do so, you will be violating that virgin's right to life and breaking the law. You can believe that all must repent and be born again, but if you go around forcing people to repent at gunpoint, you're violating their freedom of conscience and are breaking the law.

Yet there is another aspect to freedom of religion that is less often considered. It is utterly impossible to have a society utterly devoid of a dominant religion which is more endorsed by law, social behavior, and culture than any other. You cannot have a religion-free society, and you cannot have one which treats all exactly the same.

Religion is part and parcel of human existence, it is what defines and motivates the parts of life which science and sensory examination cannot explain or define: philosophy, love, justice, goodness, and so on. Religion is how we explain these concepts, understand them, and describe their origin. Religion is a natural part of being a human, and cannot be blotted out or expunged, merely replaced by other forms which might be considered more acceptable and less organized.

The problem with the principle of total equality and liberty in religion is that each and every religion insists that it's the best, and usually only religion. That's the very core of religious faith: the conviction that this is the right and best way, rejecting all others. All faiths, even those less readily understood as faith, share this perspective. The really strong atheist has his faith just as the fundamentalist Christian, each rejecting the other.

Further, religions tend to have places at which they will not permit violation. This varies from faith to faith, but all have a line which they draw and will not cross. For these faiths, laws and culture cannot command them, nor will the permit others to cross that point. Some faiths, such as Wahhabist Islam, have a lot of these lines and are a lot more violent about their enforcement. Others such as Buddhism have fewer lines and are significantly more tolerant about them. But they all have lines.

The United States cannot have a situation in which very strong radical Islam has exactly the same power over culture and expression in law as every other religion, because Islam will not permit that. It must be the only source of law, education, art, culture, and faith, permitting no other influences.

Some religions by their very nature are going to be more repressed than others, from their perspective. If you tell a very strong fundamentalist Christian that they cannot pass laws telling people not to strip their clothes off for pay, that person will claim you're violating God's law and must be ignored. You can tell a very radical Muslim that women must be free to go without a shapeless bag over their whole bodies and they will claim you are violating the word of Muhammad and must be ignored. In order to have the maximum liberty with the maximum benefits and harmony in culture as well as progress and civilization, all religions have to give a little, and in the process, that means all religions suffer less liberty than they might prefer.

This must be true for a nation to maintain its liberty. Thus, when one religion tries to enforce its ideals on others, care must always be taken to make sure this does not trample on the liberty of others. That caution must extend to even events which may not in themselves be a violation of liberty, to prevent it from becoming precedent and establish momentum to greater power for that religion and lesser liberty for all. However by doing so, you are elevating one belief system over all others.

Anti ChristmasAt present, a vaguely spiritual secularism is the dominant religion in the United States. There's room for spiritual and religious beliefs in this system, as long as they are kept completely and utterly personal and without any public expression. You can read your Bible, just not in school. You can have your faith, just not bother anyone else with it. You can believe God has spoken, but not pass laws or execute policy influenced by that belief, according to the new secularism.

In the process, that can begin to erode other liberties. If you tell someone they cannot sing Christmas carols at school because they contain any vaguest reference to Christmas, Gaia forbid, that begins to encroach upon liberty for the sake of your faith system. If you tell someone they cannot wish others a "merry Christmas" or lose their job, again, you've begun to enforce your faith system on them and damaged their liberty.

All of us have to compromise, tolerate ideas we disagree with, and put up with people we think are weird in any society of any size, be it a family, a neighborhood, a city, or a nation. That must include religious tolerance, which does not mean expunging specific religious reference, but a willingness to allow people to have their beliefs as long as they do not begin violating liberty.

Please note: this does not mean folks will never be offended. There is no right to avoid being offended, nor is there the slightest concern of this happening by the Founding Fathers of the United States. They understood this was a matter of personal reaction, not of liberty. If you get upset at something, that's how you react to that event, not the event its self. Sure, they knew that some things are so innately offensive to the normal person that they need to be curtailed, but the mere possibility of offense was of no particular cause for concern. It was a matter of public politeness to avoid offense, not a matter for government control, not ever.

The left is very fine at tolerating what they consider "minority" or "oppressed" religions in this manner. Muslims are free to express their faith loudly and publicly, and even demand special treatment without complaint by leftists. The left believes these people have been so ill-treated by the majority white Christian culture that decency requires we all even things out by permitting them to go further than other faiths. Some faiths are boutique favorites of the left like Buddhism, which is perceived as so harmless and chic that it never raises any concern.

To be a truly free and tolerant culture, all faiths must be treated equally, without favor to any or cruelty to any based solely on their existence. Any limitation to their liberty must be based upon what they do which causes reaction... not what they believe, what their culture is, where it originates, or who the left perceives as being oppressed in some scale of social justice. For in a society where liberty are best protected and rights are best honored, we all have to give a little so we all can gain a lot; even if that means putting up with someone wishing you a merry Christmas.

*This was originally posted at RightNetwork in slightly different form.

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