By Bruce T. Gourley
On May 5, 2014, in Town of Greece v. Galloway, five U.S. Supreme Court justices harboring extremist views began unraveling America’s greatest contributions to the world: freedom of conscience, religious liberty for all and church- state separation.
Prior to the 17th century, freedom of conscience was non-existent, and governments mandated the religious faith of citizens. Individuals who objected to the religion established by the state were forced to conform or leave.
In early America, colonial Christian theocratic governments perpetuated this model of religious persecution. Baptists especially, advocating for freedom of conscience, refused to conform to state religion, arguing that coerced (or forced) faith was false religion. Only voluntary faith – of whatever variety – born of a free conscience was authentic faith.
For refusing to conform to or participate in government-mandated prayers, theology and religious rituals, Baptists and other religious dissenters were forced to leave their homes and communities.
Determined to eradicate the evils of fettered consciences and forced religious faith, Baptists Roger Williams and John Clarke spearheaded the establishment of the Rhode Island colony as a refuge for persons of all religious faiths or no faith, a place – the first in the world – that welcomed freedom of conscience, harbored religious liberty for all and separated church and state.
Outside of Rhode Island, Baptists and their allies led a long and difficult fight for freedom and equality that changed the world, severing, in the eventual establishment of the new American nation in the late 18th century, the unholy alliance of church and state.
Baptist principles of freedom of conscience, religious liberty for all and church state separation – America’s greatest contributions to the world – were enshrined on the façade of the Rhode Island state house, written into the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights and, in more modern times, written into the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Yet in the Greece ruling, five extremist Supreme Court justices – all conservative Christians – unconscionably turned their backs on America’s greatest legacy and instructed dissenters to bind their consciences by conforming to government-mandated sectarian religion of a certain Christian persuasion, or leave the room.
There is, to be certain, a precedent in the modern world for governments binding the consciences and dismissing the rights of minority faiths. Most prominently, the governments of Middle Eastern Muslim-dominant countries routinely tell Christians to move somewhere else if they object to state-mandated Islamic theology and law.
Now, five of America’s Supreme Court justices have given free reign for Christian-dominant communities to tell Muslims – and all other citizens, including dissenting Christians – to conform to government-mandated religious faith, or leave.
Whether leaving refers to a room, a building, a community, a state or a nation is irrelevant: The dissolution of freedom of conscience and the practice of religious discrimination by government officials and legislation is now legally sanctioned in the United States.
Christians, of all people, should be especially outraged that government is now allowed to dictate conscience and religion. After all, the imprisonment of conscience and forcing of faith is foreign to the New Testament and was opposed by Jesus Christ himself.
America’s founders would also be horrified. After establishing America upon the principles of religious liberty for all and church-state separation, they refused to heed the angry petitions of conservative Christians (the Christian Right of the early 19th century) who demanded that church state separation be abolished and that government honor and declare the nation’s (as they believed) Christian foundations.
Yet the founders did see value in acknowledging what was then an emerging concept: a civil religion consisting of the myriad of collective practices and beliefs, religious or otherwise, unique to the broad American experience. This multi-faceted, pluralistic national identity was occasionally acknowledged by some early presidents in the issuing of non-sectarian, generic, ambiguous and inclusive statements that sometimes made vague references to a deity, without ever using the language of “God” or “Jesus” or “Christian.” The goal was to be equally inclusive of all, religious or otherwise. In similar fashion, non-sectarian, generic, inclusive prayers were offered at some government functions, utterances invoking civil religion, rather than religious faith.
The Greece decision, however, willfully ignores America’s inclusive historical foundations. Deeming non-sectarian, generic, inclusive, civil religion insufficient, five extremist, activist Supreme Court justices have granted permission for government officials to mandate the religious faith of American citizens.
Every American should be outraged that the nation’s highest court has legalized the abolishment of their freedom of conscience. Rather than joining in the unraveling of America’s greatest contributions to the world – freedom of conscious, religious liberty for all and church state separation – people of authentic faith (Christian or otherwise) and no faith should demand that their local government officials respect freedom of conscience and abstain from advocating or participating in the false religion of forced faith.
Bruce T. Gourley is executive director of the Baptist History and Heritage Society, which has offices in Macon, Ga., and Manhattan, Mont. Its website is www.baptist history.org.