What Is 'Freedom of Religion'?
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
This is a plain enough statement, if you take it for what it actually says rather than as a broad, overarching statement of unlimited religious liberty. Since most contemporary leftists cannot tell the difference between law and poetry, a bit of historical context and rational analysis may be necessary to bring us back to earth.
It is very likely that the framers of the First Amendment were trying to avoid a specific problem by including the establishment clause. At the time the document was written, England and the Europe had endured over a century of religious wars that were still fresh in the public’s imagination. These wars between different denominations of Christians had left their scars. Since most of the original thirteen American colonies had strong leanings toward one denomination or another, forbidding Congress from establishing a state religion was a reassurance to most Americans. The amendment simply meant that the Federal legislature could neither establish the most powerful domination as a national religion, nor persecute any of the weaker ones then existing or anticipated. There is little reason to believe the framers wished to create an unconditional haven forany religion whatsoever. Likewise, there is no indication in the text that the framers wished to strip state governments of every vestige of Christian influence. The First Amendment itself did not, and still doesn’t, prevent the state legislature of Virginia from opening their proceedings with a Baptist prayer, the legislature of Massachusetts with a Congregationalist prayer, or the legislature of Pennsylvania with a Quaker moment of silence. Rather, it prevents the Federal government from making that decision for them.
It is nonsense to suppose the framers wished to allow, for all time, the free exercise of any religion whatsoever. Most of the framers were educated and knowledgeable men. They would have been aware of the barbaric excesses of the pre-Christian religions of Europe, as well as the elaborate but horrific religions the Spanish had encountered in Mesoamerica. It isn’t plausible that Thomas Jefferson and his associates were prepared to tolerate anything like the religion of the Aztecs, for example, which called for human sacrifice as a central feature of its doctrine. Even the tolerant Quakers would have balked at having the beating heart of a family member ripped out from time to time - all to appease the odd beliefs of their neighbors. Similarly, there is no reason to believe the framers would have welcomed a colony of Muslims from the Barbary Coast - yearning not to breathe free, but to extend their religiously-endorsed Islamic conquest to our fledgling republic. The framers were not such naïve idealists as to put religious tolerance above the more pressing considerations of our safety and our own national sovereignty.
The popular notion that the freedom of religion guaranteed by the Constitution is the free exercise of any religion whatsoever is not the creation of our colonial forefathers - but of much more modern, much more atheistic minds. The belief that all religions are compatible is a consequence of the belief that all religious are more-or-less alike. Atheists typically presuppose that the purpose of all religions is to provide a comforting promise of an afterlife to a gullible public, and since they believe all religions share this function it follows, in the atheist’s worldview, that all religious disagreement is superficial. Thus, it isn’t hard for an atheist to believe that a Muslim is just a Mennonite with a different hat preference. Quaint and backward perhaps, but essentially harmless. In the rare instances when members of the secular left are forced to admit that Muslims and Christians are actually quite different, they tend to assume that our modern decadent culture will erode Islam’s rough edges if given time – making yesterday’s jihadis into a bearded breed of Islamo-unitarians. People who believe in killing the infidel wherever they find them - but asking the infidel’s permission first, then killing them with kindness. In short, the leftist atheist culture has done such an effective job destroying the real substance of Western Christianity that they themselves can no longer understand what a deeply held religious conviction even is. Teaching them could be very costly for the whole of Western civilization.
The establishment clause wasn’t subverted in a single act, but has been remade gradually through a broad interpretation of the 14th Amendment. The 14th Amendment was passed after the Civil War to prevent the states of the former Confederacy from achieving through state law what they had failed to achieve through open warfare. It declared that what the Federal government could not do, no state should be allowed to do either - and that what the Federal government guaranteed, no state should be allowed to deny. Yet again, a short-term solution gave birth to unintended consequences. Whereas the original U.S. Constitution protected the states from a potentially dominating Federal government, the 14th amendment reversed the original Constitution’s intent by making Federal law trump state law. While it is perhaps not such a bad idea to forbid individual states from curtailing free speech, it is less obvious that the overwhelming Christianity of a state shouldn’t be a good enough reason to enshrine the Ten Commandments on its courthouses. Moreover, since unbelief isn’t generally seen to constitute a religion (Torcaso v. Watkins notwithstanding) the functional establishment of atheism as a state creed has not been interfered with by the establishment clause. While it would create a furor to have a Christian witness sworn in by placing his hand on a copy of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, it wouldn’t raise the same Constitutional issues as swearing in a Hindu on the KJV. The word “religion” has, paradoxically, given unbelief a legally advantageous status.
When founding constitutions are interpreted to essentially reverse their original intentions, the law becomes a farce. What, exactly, is the difference between having a “living constitution” and having no constitution at all? What was once a declaration to avoid domestic religious tyranny is now being used to shield a far worse religious tyranny imported from the Middle East. And Islamists, unfortunately, do not give a damn about either our history or the cynical cleverness of “progressive” judges.