Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, Howard Chandler Christy, 1940
Controversy surrounds the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America and will continue to do so for as long as the United States exists. Just what is forbidden and what is permitted by the “no establishment” clause? Historically speaking, the need for the clause is easy to understand: the union brought together a great number of communities, most of which adhered to some form of Christian worship, but many of which were adamant it was their own form, and not the form practiced by their rivals, that was the right one. To attempt to impose a single established church on all the states would have led to the breakdown of the union. At the federal level, therefore, the government of the United States was to show no favoritism in religious affairs. That relatively weak interpretation of the no establishment clause is, it seems to me, all that historical hermeneutics authorizes. But that is not how the clause is interpreted today by secularists, who argue it authorizes a kind of fumigation of all public institutions—including public schools, law courts, state universities, and colleges—to exterminate the religious bug. The assumption seems to be that religious freedom can only exist when the absence of religion from the state is enforced.
This radical secularist approach leads very quickly to a paradox. If there really is religious freedom, then it ought to be possible for citizens to lead life as their faith requires. But religious people believe they are under a duty to bear witness to their faith. Teachers, advisors, and legislators cannot act as though their religious beliefs have no bearing on what they say and do. They can of course endeavor to make room for disagreement, and this at least the no establishment clause requires. But they cannot act as though the voice of religion has been silenced as soon as they enter the classroom, the law court, or the debating chamber. To take the secularist path to religious freedom is therefore to deny religion, not to free it.
In fact, when the founding fathers, under the influence of James Madison, inserted the no establishment clause into the Constitution, it was not because they wished people to cease acknowledging their religion in public life.1 The founders were either Christians or, like Jefferson, fellow travelers of the Christian faith who did not wish Christianity to vanish from the prominent place in public life it had enjoyed since the first colonial settlements. They were also acutely aware of the religious oppressions of Europe, from which their ancestors had fled to the New World in order freely to practice their faith. The founders wanted to separate state from church, not to exclude faith from public life. And they wanted free churches, answerable to their congregations and not to law makers. The established Church of England was to them repugnant less as an attempt to impose Christianity than as a symbol of royal power and its intrusion into every sphere of social life. Moreover the no establishment clause was meant as a limitation on the powers of Congress, not on the powers of the individual states. The founders surely did not intend the clause to authorize Congress to intrude on the state of Massachusetts, for example, which at the time had an absolute ban against Roman Catholicism—a ban the federal government made no effort to lift.
Today’s radical secularists interpret the no establishment clause in another way entirely. Perceived violations of the no establishment clause include a court displaying the Ten Commandments and public schools beginning the day with prayers. As I suggested here, such interpretations do not convey a desire to protect religious freedom as much as they convey a desire to deprive religion of the place it naturally demands in the public life of a nation whose people remain, in their own understanding at least, largely within the faith traditions rooted in the Judeo-Christian Bible. Nobody was forcing children to take part in the public prayers at school or forcing anyone to genuflect before the Ten Commandments in the courtroom. Yet some currents of opinion in America not only take offence at school prayers and doctrinal icons but believe it is part of the spirit of democratic freedom to forbid them. Religion, for such people, is not just a private affair; it is something to be privatized, to be confined within the home like a habit that, however innocuous it may be in itself, becomes offensive when put on public display.
But this brings me to what, I think, is the crucial issue posed by religious freedom in the world today, which is the extent to which the religions of the world can actually be reconciled with the secular rule of law and the freedoms, including the freedom of religion, that we take for granted. Christians are under an obligation to bear witness to their faith, but this does not mean inflicting their faith on others or forcibly requiring others to submit to it. As the founder of the Christian faith himself showed, you bear witness not through triumphing over your rivals but through submitting to their judgment. And the Greek word used for the concept of witness (marturein) is now used to denote those who have been put to death or tormented for their religious beliefs (martyr). The Christian faith, as it understands itself today, does not demand we silence its critics, or even forbid them to practice their faith.
Muslims must also bear witness to their faith among those who do not share it, in deeds of piety and loving kindness as well as through worship and prayer. But there has been a tendency in times of stress to describe as a martyr (shahīd) not only the one who is killed for his faith but also the one who kills for it. This tendency is not unique to Islam, of course, as we know from the history of the crusades. But it is clear that religious freedom cannot be granted to those who regard their faith as freeing them from the ordinary obligations of civil life, including the obligation to respect the life of their critics. For Islam as for the other Abrahamic faiths, therefore, we must ask how the faithful should respond when challenged by the secular culture to bear witness to their faith.
Nor is discussion of this matter confined to the Abrahamic religions. The action of Sophocles’s Antigone hinges on the conflict between political order, represented and upheld by Creon, and religious duty, represented by the person of Antigone. The first is public, involving the whole community; the second is private, involving Antigone alone. Hence the conflict cannot be resolved. Public interest has no bearing on Antigone’s decision to bury her dead brother, while the duty laid by divine command on Antigone cannot possibly be a reason for Creon to jeopardize the state.
A similar conflict informs the Oresteia of Aeschylus, in which a succession of religious murders, beginning with Agamemnon’s ritual sacrifice of his daughter, lead at last to the terrifying persecution of Orestes by the furies. The gods demand the murders; the gods also punish them. Religion binds the house of Atreus, but in dilemmas it does not resolve. Resolution comes at last only when judgment is handed over to the city, personified in Athena. In the political order, we are led to understand, justice replaces vengeance, and negotiated solutions abolish absolute commands. The message of the Oresteia resounds down the centuries of Western civilization: it is through politics, not religion, that peace is secured. Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, but justice, says the city, is mine.