Religion and the free exercise thereof

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution begins with the line, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. A concept which has been under attack since the nineteen eighties but has come under intensified assault since the election of Donald Trump.

Establishment of Religion

Books have been written on what the founders meant but the religious freedom clause is easier to understand broken into two sections. The first part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” is there to prohibit a state religion. The founders were very aware of the Church of England’s influence over Great Britain.

Bishops and ministers in the Church of England swore an oath to remain faithful to the King. at the time of the revolution there wasn’t a bishop in the Colonies but the Anglican Church was attempting to establish one. For many this was not just an issue of religion but one of individual liberty. Many who had fled religious persecution were afraid it had followed them to the new land.

Individual religious freedom was a large part of and very important to the colonies. They viewed the right to worship without restriction as important as the right to free speech and the right to assemble (which are closely related).

To date the Congress or President has not established a state religion but it seems the President is trying to elevate the Christian religion to that status with a subtle antisemitism and blatant attacks on Islam. With his insistence on using the phrase ‘radical Islamic terrorism’, an immigration ban targeting Muslims and his bizarre deflection on the recent Jewish cemetery attacks it appears he is trying to set up Christianity – specifically White Evangelical Christianity – as the preferred religion of America.

White Evangelical Christians seem to approve as they are willing to compromise their moral beliefs for political power.

A recent poll by PRRI states, “No group has shifted their position more dramatically than white evangelical Protestants. More than seven in ten (72%) white evangelical Protestants say an elected official can behave ethically even if they have committed transgressions in their personal life—a 42-point jump from 2011, when only 30 % of white evangelical Protestants said the same. Roughly six in ten white mainline Protestants (60%) and Catholics (58%) also believe elected officials can behave honestly and ethically in their public roles regardless of their personal behavior. In 2011, only about four in ten white mainline Protestants (38%) and Catholics (42%) held this view. Notably, religiously unaffiliated Americans have remained constant in their views; six in ten (60%) believe elected officials who behave immorally in their personal lives can still perform their duties with integrity, compared to 63% in 2011.”

I certaintly hope a state religion is not created, especially one that has such a mercurial belief system.

Free exercise thereof

Because the second part of the clause, “prohibiting the free exercise thereof” is also at risk. Quite simply that line states the government does not have the authority to tell Americans how, where or who to worship. That idea however is more tenuous than ever.

Building a Mosque has become a herculean task in the United States. According to the NY Times, “Across the country, more and more towns have used local zoning laws as barriers to new mosques and Islamic schools, underscoring what civil rights advocates say is a growing wave of intolerance that has been amplified by the victory of President-elect Donald J. Trump”.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has been tracking hate crimes since the election. They found hate crimes which spiked shortly after the election have slowed down but are still above pre-election levels. Internet based racist sites have seen a thirty to fifty percent increase in viewership. I am not saying individual acts are unconstitutional but they often reflect the actions and attitudes of the government.

The first line of the First Amendment to the Constitution reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” giving every American the right to worship or not worship as they please. If you do not agree with another religion you are free to try and persuade its followers to your beliefs. The constitution gives you that right. To quote Evelyn Beatrice Hall, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it”.

We must speak out whenever the right to religion is in jeopardy. In a bit of unintended truth President Trump said at the National Prayer Breakfast, “Freedom of religion is a sacred right, but it is also a right under threat all around us, and the world is under serious, serious threat in so many different ways.  And I’ve never seen it so much and so openly as since I took the position of President”.