The Founders on Religious Liberty

Rob Schwarzwalder is Senior Vice President at Family Research Council. This article appeared in Religion Today on December 16, 2013.

Religious liberty as we have always known it is under attack. The Left wants to limit it to the walls of our churches, erecting legal structures that will impede people of faith from living out that faith in their public and professional lives.

Last month, the Supreme Court agreed to hear two important cases on whether or not Americans should continue to be permitted to live out their faith, one filed by the owners of Hobby Lobby, and one by the owners of Conestoga Wood Specialties. Both companies reject the Obama administration's mandate, under the Affordable Care Act, that every business in America (other than certain religious institutions that fit the law's very narrow exemption) would be forced to pay for insurance plans that include drugs that can act as abortifacients. These family-owned businesses never expected to be forced into the position of paying either crippling fines that could shutter their businesses or drop the healthcare plans that their employees have long appreciated.

This goes to the very heart of "the free exercise of religion," as guaranteed by the First Amendment. This guarantee reflects our nation's long and rich heritage of respecting the freedom of conscience. From wedding photographers to florists, from veterans' memorials that feature crosses to seniors who want to pray before meals at their retirement homes, religious liberty is the target of those who would have America jettison her Judeo-Christian heritage and move entirely into a non-theistic, secular state (for explicit and extensive documentation, see Family Research Council's "Undeniable: The Survey of Hostility to Religion in America" and "A Clear and Present Danger: The Threat to Religious Liberty in the Military").

The Founders of our country seldom spoke more eloquently than when they discussed religious liberty. They regarded religious liberty as our "first freedom," as they recognized that if one's duty to God was surpassed by his duty to the state, the state itself usurps God's role and all of our rights and liberties become subject to the whims of our rulers.

Here is a sampling of their statements that should encourage Christians to stand firm for our "first freedom" and its open and unrestricted exercise in all spheres of life:

"The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man: and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate." - James Madison, "A Memorial and Remonstrance," 1785

"[T]he only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments." - Benjamin Rush, "On the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic," 1798

"It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support." - George Washington, "Letter to the Hebrew Congregation, Newport, Rhode Island," 1790

"There is not a single instance in history in which civil liberty was lost, and religious liberty preserved entire." - John Witherspoon, "The Dominance of Providence Over the Affairs of Men," 1776

"As late as the 1750s, Constitution-signer William Livingston was still reminding readers of his influential magazine, The Independent Reflector, how 'the countless Sufferings of your pious Predecessors for Liberty of Conscience, and the Right of private Judgment' drove them 'to this country, then a dreary Waste and barren Desert.'" - Myron Magnet, "Giving Thanks in the Land of the Free," Wall Street Journal, November 28, 2013

"[R]eligion, or the duty which we owe to our creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and this is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other." - George Mason, Virginia Declaration of Rights, Article 16, 1776

"Every man must give an account of himself to God, and therefore every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in that way that he can best reconcile to his conscience. ... It would be sinful for a man to surrender that to man which is to be kept sacred for God." - John Leland, "The Rights of Conscience Inalienable," 1791

Writing earlier this year in the Illinois Law Review, legal scholar Nathan Chapman argues that "fidelity to conscience, religious or nonreligious, is valuable in its own right; it promotes personal integrity and undermines government's tendency toward moral totalitarianism."

Is that where we're headed - "moral totalitarianism?" A strong phrase, but unless we sustain our religious liberty and the right to live according to our consciences, that destination will appear ever more distinctly on the national map.