One of the things the founding fathers were most driven by, and indeed much of the settlement and foundation of the United States of America, was religious freedom. Many of the immigrants to the Americas were driven by persecution from established religions in various European countries. Jews, Moravians, Hugenots, and many other groups fled to the new world to start up a new life free from tyranny and oppression.
That attitude and the memories of being oppressed, attacked, tortured, and killed for your faith loomed very large in the minds of the founders as they worked on the new country and what it would stand for. More than almost any other right, the freedom of conscience was central to the writings and thoughts of the founders.
What good is it to have liberty if you aren't allowed to believe and think what you wish? How could this new country be a beacon of freedom and the rights of mankind if people were punished for what they believed?
The founders were very, very clear on this topic, writing extensively and passionately against the idea of an established system of beliefs and faith, or any sort of religious persecution. Here are a few samples:
“If I could conceive that the general government might ever be so administered as to render the liberty of conscience insecure, I beg you will be persuaded, that no one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution.”
“We should begin by setting conscience free. When all men of all religions shall enjoy equal liberty, property, and an equal chance for honors and power we may expect that improvements will be made in the human character and the state of society.”
"No provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of the civil authority."
The founders were primarily concerned about one religion establishing dominance over all others by using the state's power. And until very recently, the left was very, very concerned about this, calling for freedom and individual choices.
Until recently. Now we're told that what you believe and how you think about things must be either kept to yourself or kept within certain boundaries and guidelines. Increasingly, pressure is on people to think what they want, as long as that's all they do. Acting on your beliefs is considered not just mistaken but evil, if it varies from the left's beliefs.
Very recently in Oregon, a couple with a bakery who declined to make a "wedding" cake for two lesbians were ordered to pay the couple over $100,000 because the lesbians claim they felt "raped" and violated by the bakers declining. And what's more, the Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Akavian ordered the couple to not ever discuss or talk about their beliefs in public, because he claims they violate the law and are discriminatory.
Now, whatever you think about homosexual "marriage" its obvious that this order violates several basic human rights in the name of shutting down freedom of conscience. Because its not enough to tell people they are free to think and believe what they want. You cannot stop someone from doing so. That's like saying someone is free to like bacon, no one can prevent it.
The freedom to act upon and shape your life based on your conscience is paramount for liberty, because if you must do only what you're told, it is irrelevant what you believe and you have no freedom at all.
The anti-communist efforts of the 1950s were awful and wrong because of this basic principle. It is this truth about rights and beliefs which defines why the McCarthy era was so anti-American. Putting aside the truth of many of his claims and stated concerns, the tactics and attitude of the time was wrong. Yes, Communism is an evil ideology. Yes, its insidious and horrible and was creeping into society at all levels, so much so that we have a flat out open and avowed communist as a serious presidential candidate on the Democrat party side today (Sanders).
But the persecution of people and the attempts to crush the movement, arrest its members, deny them free access to society, etc based on their beliefs and ideology was wrong. The entire process was a violation of constitutional rights and the foundational concepts of liberty in the United States, no matter how real the threat.
We have a basic system in this country already in place even in the military where someone's conscience is considered so sacred and so important that even during the draft, people cannot be forced to violate it. Conscientious Objectors are allowed to serve without directly violating their beliefs by killing others. The entire reason behind this is that we understood - in the past - in this nation that what you believe impacts and shapes what you do, and forcing people to violate their conscience is a tyranny which must not be tolerated in the state.
The government must never, ever, under any circumstances, punish people for what they believe. And what's more, they must not at any time punish people for acting on that belief, unless it represents a significant and important violation of a superior human right.
In other words: never should the government punish someone for believing in Azathoth even if that belief leads them to not sell sunblock to white people. However, the federal government must interfere if that cultist tries to sacrifice someone to Azathoth.
Today, we're told that we have a right to "dignity," according to Justice Kennedy on the Supreme Court. Not only is this a ridiculous, outrageous fiction akin to declaring that up is down and cake is pie, but its wholly without possibility of enforcing or protecting. The implications of this absurd statement are almost impossible to express and we'll be seeing that very soon, I am certain.
But even if there was such a right, even if "dignity" was a human right, or the more commonly insisted upon right to not be offended, it would not trump freedom of conscience.
Let me restate that
Your desire to feel good about yourself or not be offended does not trump my freedom of conscience.
You may not violate my conscience because what I believe I makes you feel bad. And the right to act upon that conscience must be defended and protected by the state, not violated, no matter how bad it makes someone feel.
But even if you somehow did have a right to not be offended, it is a lesser right than freedom of conscience. This is patently obvious, if for no other reason than because that offense and how you feel is your conscience and beliefs being acted upon. You are being hurt or offended because of what you believe. So your reaction to someone's behavior is a demonstration of your freedom of conscience\. Your freedom of conscience does not trump someone else's.
The way the left treats Islam is an example of a better approach to conscience. Islam as interpreted by modern clerics and in the Koran is a pretty awful religion in terms of human rights and basic liberties. It crushes the rights of women, it requires submission to a single state faith, and so on.
However, as long as Muslim faith does not begin to violate these rights, they should be free to believe and act as they choose. The left shows how this can be done by protecting the rights of Muslims and not allowing them to be silenced or shut out of public areas. Now, they're doing so not out of any allegiance to freedom of conscience, its part of their infantile oppressor/victim worldview, but the end result is what we should see for all faiths and beliefs.
Oliver Wolcott at the Connecticut Ratifying Convention has a troubling warning in his thoughts on the 1st amendment, however:
“Knowledge and liberty are so prevalent in this country, that I do not believe that the United States would ever be disposed to establish one religious sect, and lay all others under legal disabilities. But as we know not what may take place hereafter, and any such test would be exceedingly injurious to the rights of free citizens, I cannot think it altogether superfluous to have added a clause, which secures us from the possibility of such oppression.”
One of the main purposes of the first amendment was to protect people from religious discrimination and oppression. It was meant to prevent the state from imposing one system of ideology over all others, to stop one faith system or belief system from dominating and oppressing any others.THE SHIFT
There is legislation moving through the House of Representatives right now that would protect a church from federal penalties for refusing to hold a homosexual "wedding." This is legislation that should not even have to be considered. But these are the times we live in. Michael Foucault has a different kind of quote, one which more closely reflects modern thought on the topic than the founders:
“Freedom of conscience entails more dangers than authority and despotism.”
Now this is taken out of context and doesn't mean exactly what it sounds like, but its a statement of how the left seems to view the world today. Your beliefs are sinister and dangerous and must be stopped because they are getting in the way of what I believe, we're told. Recently a congressman argued that religious beliefs must be restrained only to inside religious institutions, and this is mainstream thought in many universities and colleges. Only bad comes from religion, we're told - at least, the organized religions they recognize.
Demanding that people be compelled to participate, support, and in their business assist in what they believe is wrong is a fundamental violation of liberty and the freedom of conscience. This is not some strange new reactionary idea, it is one of the most bedrock concepts of American liberty. Further, it is so patently obvious and common sense that only someone fundamentally foolish or at least temporarily insane could possibly question it.
This is not open to any level of debate. There is no right to compel others to violate their consciences. Period. Full stop. Absolutely none. There is only the tyranny to force them to at the barrel of a gun. And is that really the world you want to live in and see your kids grow up in?