Freedom, Rights, and Duty – part 1

A poll released this week revealed that 25% of Americans do not know which country the U.S. won its freedom from.  This astounding number rises to 40% for 18-29 year-olds.  If ignorance of such a basic historical fact is so widespread, imagine the extent of misunderstanding of not only the content of our Constitution but its meaning.  As we celebrate our great country’s independence this weekend and remember history, it is important to reflect on the meaning of this freedom and the nature of the rights our founders secured for us in our Constitution.

The First Amendment of the Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”  Thus, the right to the free exercise of religion is the first in our Bill of Rights.  What does the free exercise of religion entail?

Originally, the primary meaning of this right, i.e. the main implication to the first Americans, was that the government could not use its power to compel its citizens to adhere to any particular religion or denomination.  Therefore, citizens were free to choose what they believed and which faith community to identify with without fear of political repercussions.  Such a society differed from European states in which religious adherence was wed to political loyalty.  Of course, this right forbade the government from prohibiting where people attended church or what doctrine they studied and taught their children.  But it also allowed citizens to practice their faith publicly, bringing religious belief and conviction into the public square to shape and motivate public policy.  Throughout U.S. History, Christians have exercised this freedom of religious expression to influence social revolution in order to make a more just society.  The most significant social movements were probably the abolitionist movement of the 19th century and the civil rights movement of the 20th century.  These movements were led by men and women of Christian conviction and were based on such biblical concepts as human equality being derived from our common nature as divine image-bearers.

As important as this right is to U.S. History and as essential as it is to true freedom, the original meaning of the “free exercise of religion” has been changing gradually, yet significantly.  In a recent speech at Georgetown University on human rights, Secretary of State Clinton replaced the conventional phrase “freedom of religion” with the phrase “freedom of worship.”   This subtle shift in language was not accidental and signifies a fundamental change in the interpretation of our religious rights.  As Chuck Colson points out,”this clever dissembling of words is an apparent attempt to restrict freedom of religion to freedom of worship only.”  By restricting the “free exercise of religion” to “freedom of worship”, this view limits religious expression to acts of personal piety and corporate worship, relegating faith to the private sphere and excluding it from the public sphere.

Such a dichotomy between public and private life is already pervasive in our culture and is becoming increasingly codified in public policy and jurisprudence.  The implications of limiting the freedom of religion to freedom of worship are far-reaching.  Certainly the abolitionist and civil-rights movements would not have gained traction and prevailed if our citizens were not free to exercise their religion publicly.  And I would also argue that the American Revolution would not have happened if the Founding Fathers believed that religion was merely a private matter.

I will write again on this subject in a couple of days to expound further the ramifications of this shift in thinking.


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