Cornerstone of Democracy #2



Like Solomon opined, there really is nothing new under the sun, and religious persecution appears to be one of our oldest and most cherished inclinations. Through more than 30 centuries and across the globe, a good case can be made that no era, location, or faith group has been immune. It seems that everywhere and at every time—granted at varying levels of severity—someone was being persecuted for their convictions.

They were alternately taxed (see first-century Judeans), imprisoned, treated as second-class citizens (the Jews during really any period of earth’s history), outlawed or banished (see Christians and Buddhists at varying times during eighteenth-century Asia), tortured and/or killed (Cathers, Waldensians, and Huguenots during the Reformation).

And much more. Civilizations have varied in determining who are the most despised: idolaters, pagans, or heretics; and so all have been persecuted.

-- Melissa Reid, reviewing Mary Jane Engh's In the Name of Heaven: 3,000 Years of Religious Persecution


Knowing the terrible history of humans persecuting other humans is fundamental to understanding why our early settlers and our Founding Fathers had strong convictions about religious freedom in a country as diverse as America. 

And as many different groups came to America to escape persecution, there arose the belief that the best way for all these different viewpoints to live and work together would be to have a legal wall separating Church & State.

NOTE:  Is the 21st Century any different?  Here is a 2014 Pew Research about the signs of increased religious hostility around the world between 2007-2012.


PART 1: Separation of Church & State - A history of its roots

1) Many Europeans came to America in order to escape theocratic rule & religious persecution.

Founding Father James Madison noted the centuries of bloody European history regarding established churches seeking after secular power. “In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the civil authority; on many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been the guardians of the liberties of the people.”

2) The Enlightenment (arising in the early 1700s) stressed the sovereignty of reason and advanced ideals such as liberty, progress, toleration, fraternity, constitutional government and separation of church and state.

In the American context, thinkers such as Thomas Paine, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin invented and adopted revolutionary ideas about scientific rationality, religious toleration and experimental political organization—ideas that would have far-reaching effects on the development of the fledgling nation.


3) In the 1770s, the State of Virginia legislature and native son Thomas Jefferson gave a uniquely American voice to the idea of religion, government, and freedom.

When Virginia was founded it established the Anglican Church as the state’s official religion. In order to hold any official position in the Virginia government you had to be a member of the Anglican Church.

Regardless of their religious affiliation, all Virginia citizens had to pay taxes to support the Anglican church in Virginia. The Quakers, Baptists, Presbyterians and Methodists fought this by petitions but were ignored.

From the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, written by Jefferson in 1777 and enacted into law in 1785, here is the basis for the First Amendment:

“ man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

This bill gave the people freedom from religious tyranny in all aspects of their lives. No longer were they forced to attend religious services, pay taxes to the state to fund the state sanctioned religion or kept from holding a job in the government.



PART 2: When referring to the separation of church & state, what are its constitutional roots?

The original constitution does not mention God at all. But this omission shouldn't be taken as meaning that God was unimportant to the founders. The secularism of the constitution was the product of a peculiarly American alliance between enlightenment freethinkers or deists, like Jefferson, and evangelicals suspicious of all established churches.


1) Article 6, section 3 of the Constitution says that "No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States".

So to facilitate this, instead of swearing allegiance to God, or to his appointed authorities as done back in Europe, federal officials are bound "by Oath or Affirmation" to the constitution itself.


2) The so-called establishment clause in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof". This is the one most familiar to Americans since it is most often cited in court cases.


Of the two – the rejection of any religious test for federal office and the establishment clause – the first seems to preserve the state from religious influence and the other to preserve religion from the influence of the state.

The two aims don't have a natural balance and in the past 50 years the balance between them has shifted against the state. Demography suggests strongly that this will pass. Younger Americans are leaning once again for less influence by religious institutions over government. Like our Founding Fathers, some of them fear the results if a theocracy takes over our government.



In 1971, the Supreme Court decided Lemon v. Kurtzman which created three tests for determining whether a particular government act or policy unconstitutionally promotes religion.

In order to be constitutional, a policy must:

  1. Have a non-religious purpose;

  2. Not end up promoting or favoring any set of religious beliefs; and

  3. Not overly involve the government with religion.

Philippians 2:3 - Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves.


PART 3: Church Doctrine & Human Rights ("Religious freedom" in the 21st Century)

The gist of this religious freedom debate is defining the boundary between scriptural dictates and constitutional dictates. Is it the Divine versus the Secular or is it just Dogma versus Human Rights? One side says it's about freedom to worship and to follow their own conscience; the other side says it's really about legalizing discrimination and allowing humans to treat other humans as second-class citizens.


PROS & CONS of Religious Freedom


Even churches are divided on the issue. Some religious leaders have called for the Separation of Church & Hate. They ask: "How can one tolerate intolerance?" Supporters of religious liberty reply that their divine directives are not being tolerated - that their God and their religion are being attacked.

Meanwhile, hate and intolerance are on the rise: mosques are being burned; synagogues desecrated; LBGQT people are being assaulted more openly and murdered; white supremacist terrorists are now considered the most violent and dangerous group in America; deranged gunmen have attacked congregations of various denominations.  Life and human dignity are being threatened.


The result of these disturbances and disagreements over personal beliefs is that the younger generation is becoming alienated by these religious struggles and abandoning churches in far greater numbers than ever before. And they are angry with the older generation and blame them for these problems.

It seems that the younger generation greatly prefers the Golden Rule and a healthy dose of respect and love. Which, all in all, seems a rather good combination, as many of us have been taught.


The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed.”
― James Madison

The Dallas Morning News had a 2018 article on religious liberty that presented 5 religious/community leaders describing what the topic means and does not mean.


The United Methodist Church wrote:

"Religious freedom reinforces, rather than diminishes, other human rights and the overarching dignity and rights of all persons. We have this dignity because each of us is created in the image of God. Being free to choose one’s belief and practice, or none at all, is part of this sacred worth."


Religious freedom is a tough topic to discuss. But it's a vital subject and it is a cornerstone to our democracy. If you feel like I've stepped on your toes, I apologize. But, as it happens in real life, sometimes we have to move our toes out of the way, so others can go where they choose. And it works when both sides are respectful to each other. Such is the nature of religious freedom, also.


Perhaps the single thing which may be required to others before toleration to them would be an oath that they would allow toleration to others.” Thomas Jefferson

In other words, the right place to start is to say: "Fair is fair. This is who we are."