June 2018 Church & State Magazine | Editorial

We shouldn’t have to say that the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom is for everyone – Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hin­du, Wiccan, Pagan, nonbeliever, etc. It’s obvious this is the case.

We shouldn’t have to say it, but sometimes we do because fringe figures connected with the Religious Right are trying to convince Americans otherwise. They could not be more wrong.

Most recently, Bryan Fischer, who runs a radio show for the American Family Association, told his audience, “The blunt, simple, direct, straightforward answer is that Wiccans do not have First Amendment rights, nor do Muslims, nor do Jews, nor do Native Americans, nor do Rastafarians, nor do any practitioners of any other religion other than Christianity.”

Fischer added, “Whatever the First Amendment is about, whatever protections it extends in the federal Constitution, those were just for Christianity. Christianity has First Amendment rights under the federal Constitution, no other religion does.”

What is Fischer’s evidence for this startling claim? He doesn’t have any. And the reason he doesn’t have any is because what he said isn’t even remotely connected to the truth. 

Nowhere in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights do we find any language singling out Christianity for special treatment. Nor is there any language implying that some faiths would have more freedoms than others. Just the opposite is true.

More evidence is found in the history behind the passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786, which scholars acknowledge had a profound impact on the wording of the First Amendment.

Penned by Thomas Jefferson, the Virginia Statute was guided through the Virginia legislature by his ally James Madison. During the discussion over the bill, some lawmakers attempted to limit its protections to Christians. Jefferson, who was living in Paris at the time of the debate, was pleased to hear that these attempts had been defeated.

The Virginia Statute, Jefferson wrote, would protect “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo, the infidel of every denomination.”

This sentiment was shared by far-sighted religious leaders of the day. John Leland, a fiery Baptist pastor and friend of Jefferson, once observed, “Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. … [A]ll should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.”

To be sure, there were people at the time of the founding who believed that Christianity should receive favored treatment. Some even argued for an officially “Christian nation.”

Their views failed to carry the day. Instead, the founders bequeathed us absolute freedom of conscience, which includes the right to believe, or not, as we see fit.

For proof of this, you need not look beyond the Constitution itself. It’s an important document. One of these days, Fischer ought to read it.