Our universities tolerate almost anything except Christianity. Our states and localities are applying all kinds of pressures. Our courts disregard the First Amendment in their hostility to the place of religion in our public life.
Finally, Obama administration officials, including the president and secretary of state, speak of “freedom of worship” as if it were the full extent of freedom of religion. We won’t even discuss the infamous Health and Human Services “contraception mandate.”
What is the cause of this attack on freedom of religion and conscience? And how can we respond in a spirit of a commitment to principles of religious liberty?
To help us get a handle on this, let’s consider an address by James Madison to the Virginia General Assembly in 1785, in which he says religious obligations have a higher claim on our attention than political obligations.
Madison speaks of religious conscience as an “unalienable right”—the same expression used for our most basic natural rights in the Declaration of Independence. He also declares that our freedom to fulfill our duty to God must be “untrammeled” because that duty is both first and last for us.
Madison made it absolutely clear that the purpose and foundation of government is to serve rather than frustrate our natural equality and liberty. He carefully uses the phrase “Civil Society” to identify the whole community, made up of families, churches, and all sorts of organic human relations that is responsible for authorizing and limiting political authority. Civil society is the “earthly sovereign” that delegates the powers of government. But over this earthly sovereign is the “Universal Sovereign” to whom all must answer. For this reason, Madison says, religion is “exempt from the authority of the Society at large.” Much more so must it be exempt from the political authority of the government that society creates.
One of the characteristic moves of the modern secular state is the effort to push the vital institutions of civil society aside — in this case, its religious communities and the unique role they play in the lives of citizens.
Individuals of faith, joined in communities of faith, forming a civil society imbued with the many faiths of those many communities, own this country. The state’s authority comes from us, and its power — the power of our elected employees — cannot be greater than what we can rightfully give it. And we cannot give the state power over the conscience of men and women, because we do not ourselves have any right to come between God and our fellow citizens. The sooner our elected employees remember these foundational truths, the sooner we may begin to recover a healthy notion of religious freedom.