In order to make explicit the rights to be reserved absolutely to the people—to state it so clearly there could be no mistake—the Founding Fathers added a Bill of Rights to the Constitution listing essential freedoms. The very first phrase of the First Amendment is “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Freedom of Religion was the premier right to the Founding Fathers. When Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense urging the Colonists to throw off British rule, the great question was what kind of government would they substitute for the English monarchy? Thomas Paine proposed that the Continental Congress create a “Charter of the United Colonies” establishing a Congress and setting standards to secure “freedom and property to all men, and above all things the free exercise of religion according to the dictates of conscience.”[i]
Why is Freedom of Religion such a premier freedom? Why is such a valued freedom so rare? Even in Colonial America it was uncommon. The Puritans, who fled England because of religious persecution, executed Mary Dyer in Boston for demanding religious freedom.[ii]
The answer is that there is a conflict between government and religion. Both seek, sometimes demand, the utmost loyalty. Governments expect their citizens and subjects to sacrifice even their lives to preserve national interests. They reserve the power to themselves, and only to themselves, to punish by death those who violate their laws. Religions—at least those that have survived and prospered against tyrannical oppression—expect the same level of devotion. History is filled with martyrs who died rather than subject their religious beliefs to the will of some emperor or king. Because religions promise paradise to those who follow their straight and narrow path, they are always a threat to government because even the threat of death cannot deter those whose only goal is heaven. Suicide bombers are a reminder of a religious zealot’s immunity to earthly power.
One solution to this conflict, the one most commonly adopted by tyrants and some more respectable monarchs, has been to demand a government monopoly over religion. Subjects were expected to adopt the religion of the ruler and opposing religious beliefs were punished not only as heresy but as treason. Sir Thomas More, King Henry VIII’s right hand man, Chancellor of England, was instrumental in having Protestant rebels against the king’s Catholic rule burned at the stake. But when King Henry VIII abandoned Catholicism and set himself up as the supreme head of the English Church—making anyone who rejected this claim a traitor—Thomas More was himself martyred for maintaining his loyalty to the Pope.[iii] The Founding Fathers chose another solution. By staying completely out of religion, the government could demand complete secular loyalty because it would never impinge upon citizens’ religious loyalties. The fact is, Freedom of Religion protects government as much as it protects religion.
Freedom of Religion in America is not a privilege granted by the government or its courts. It is a right wholly withheld from the government. The freedom is not within the government’s power to grant or deny. The government does have a role to insure that one person’s claimed religious rights do not impinge on the religious or secular rights of others. But, and as long as the Constitution remains in force, our right to freely worship what or how we choose is beyond governmental authority.
The ancient history of Israel, as recorded in the Bible, contains excellent examples of the excesses that occur when government and religious loyalties conflict. King Saul was threatened when the priest Ahimelech gave succor to David, his political enemy. When Saul ordered his household troops to kill the priest and his family they refused because their loyalty to Saul did not outweigh their respect for the priests and the God they represented. Saul had an Edomite non-believer with him, however, who was unhindered by religious fears who killed 85 of the priests at Saul’s command, (1 Samuel 22:18). The opposite result occurred when the prophet Elisha sent one of his disciples to secretly anoint Jehu to be king over Israel, at a time when Ahab’s son Joram ruled. The anointing was accompanied by instructions that Jehu should destroy Joram and all of Ahab’s family. Encouraged by this sign of divine favor, Jehu announced his anointing to the captains of the army, who promptly accepted him as king, and did not rest until the heads of all 70 of Ahab’s children were lying at the city gates, (II Kings 9). Unfortunately for Joram, his legitimacy ended when the prophet turned against him.
The First Amendment completely avoids such threats to both priests and kings by creating an environment where there can be no conflicting loyalties. It is an embodiment of the Christian teaching: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:17). It is one of the greatest political achievements of the human race.