Whenever I hear someone – especially a politician – say that the First Amendment protects freedom of religion, not freedom from religion, I just want to start screaming.
As I’ve pointed out many times on this blog and in other forums, that statement is inane and shows great ignorance of our founding principles. Religious Right figures started using it a few years ago, apparently believing they had stumbled onto something clever. In fact, they are simply spouting puerile nonsense.
The latest offender is Texas Gov. Rick Perry. While signing legislation guaranteeing people’s right to say “Merry Christmas” (which is, in itself, an incredibly silly bill), Perry popped off, “I’m proud we are standing up for religious freedom in our state. Freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion.”
Actually, Gov. Perry, it does. People who were a lot smarter than you – Roger Williams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, to name a few – understood this. You see, religious freedom must, by its very nature, include the right to reject all religion or else it isn’t really religious freedom.
Jefferson put it well in an autobiographical fragment he once wrote. He was reflecting back to the time when the Virginia legislature passed his pioneering Statute for Religious Freedom. Jefferson’s bill guaranteed to all the right to make up their own minds about religion.
It reads in part that no one “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 opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”
Note that the statute doesn’t say that you’re free to choose whatever religion you want. It says the state will not harass you on account of your religion opinions – and these may include the right to reject all faiths.
Jefferson was in France when the legislature debated his bill. His close associate Madison shepherded the bill through the Virginia General Assembly. After it passed, Madison wrote to Jefferson to tell him the good news. Madison noted that some legislators tried to limit the bill’s protections to Christians only, but that this was rejected.
He wrote, “The insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.”
Unlike Perry, Jefferson understood that for freedom of conscience to be meaningful, it has to encompass the infidels too.
Consider this as well: Under the right conditions, we all want freedom from religion – or at least freedom from certain religions. A Methodist is not a Muslim for a reason. If the public school system or some other arm of government began imposing Islam, Scientology, Zoroastrianism (or even liberal Christianity) onto people against their will, I’d expect Gov. Perry and his followers would immediately demand to be free from that religion.
The separation of church and state protects us from fundamentalist zealots who’d like nothing better than to be able to use government power to shove their narrow version of religion down our throats. They can’t. That sure sounds like freedom from religion to me.
Despite the efforts of Perry and his theocratic brigades, this is still a free country when it comes to religion. You’re free to spread your faith (on your own dime and with your own resources), and someone else is free to tell you that you’re all wet and they wouldn’t consider joining your faith under any circumstances.
That’s freedom of and from religion in action.
Perry and his pals would like Americans to think that we must choose between “freedom of” and “freedom from” religion. That’s nonsense. Those two concepts complement one another and do not fight.
We can have both. We must have both. We do have both. It’s the only way we can remain truly free.