April 2019 Church & State Magazine | Viewpoint

By Jack Hernandez

Beliefs matter. They are the soul-garments that keep us warm in life’s cold winds. They are our guides on life’s twisting trails. They are the hands that unify a community. They are our conscience.

It is necessary, then, for us to have the freedom to seek and choose our beliefs, religious and non-religious. We must also have the freedom to express them, join with those who share them and live them. We must also respect the right of others to hold their beliefs. Roger Williams, a Puritan minister, who founded the Colony of Rhode Island in 1636, supported and advocated for this freedom, which he called “liberty of conscience.” For this “dangerous idea” he had been expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony by Puritan leaders.

This dangerous idea is an important part of our Constitution, a necessary guarantee of our freedom. The Establishment Clause guarantees that our government – national, state, and local, including schools – shall not endorse nor support a particular religious belief, shall not impose one on people, even if a majority holds that belief. Similarly, it forbids the government from attacking or limiting religious belief or practice. This is described by the phrase “separation of church and state.”  In short, freedom of conscience.

Unfortunately, the separation of church and state is seen by some to create a secular, non-religious society. But this is untrue because while our government is secular, that is, not favoring religious belief over non-religious belief, it actually creates the conditions for diverse religious and non-religious beliefs and practices to flourish. By doing this, it provides us with many alternatives in the search for our own life-giving beliefs. And that is freedom of conscience.

Some people, unfortunately, do not like and criticize this separation of church and state. They argue, wrongfully, that separation of church and state means government is hostile to religion, is attempting to weaken, even outlaw and destroy it. But this argument make sense only if they wish government to endorse and promote religion, their religion. What they want is a theocracy, not a democracy. A government run according to their religious beliefs, imposed on all.

Of course, people who want this kind of government would be happy only if it reflected their religious beliefs. Thus, prayer in public schools and city council meetings, for example, would be their prayers.  But what if they weren’t? What if their children had to listen to the prayers of another religion? When we discussed this in my philosophy clas­ses, this question helped those who advocated such prayer to understand the reason for separation of church and state because they would not want another religion imposed upon them. They realized, then, that they should not impose theirs upon others. This is so true in our nation with its diversity of religious and non-religious views.

Jack HernandezBy Jack Hernandez, a member of Americans Uni­ted and a retired director of the Norman Levan Cen­ter of the Humanities at Bakersfield College in California. This piece first appeared in the Bakersfield Californian.

What bothers many, also, is that our freedom allows some beliefs and practices that are immoral according to their religion. Abortion, contraceptives, and gay marriage come to mind. Yet, they are free to argue against such and not to have them in their lives. Because religious beliefs differ from each other and from non-religious beliefs, freedom of conscience is messy. But with it we can seek and choose to believe what nourishes our spirits and knits our soul-garments.

Beliefs matter. A vibrant, democratic society flourishes with variety, and freedom of conscience is its garden.