Acton Commentary

Can America Remain the Land of Religious Liberty?


Independence Day reminds us that there is no greater offering America gives to the world than its example of and contributions to religious liberty. The American Revolution elevated self-government, the importance of virtue, and a liberal religious freedom. Today, secularism and centralized power threaten these principles.

At the drafting of the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776, George Mason called for “the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion.” But a much younger representative named James Madison sought to improve the language and rewrote the statement this way: “All men are equally entitled to the full and free exercise of religion according to the dictates of conscience.” “Toleration” suggests rights granted or bestowed by the state, which could one day be revoked. Madison biographer Richard Brookhiser explained the American founder’s thinking this way, “No one could be said to allow men to worship as they wished; they worshipped as they wished because it was their right as men.”

Sending us backward, not forward, secularization and centralization of power is making us more distant from America’s high tide of religious freedom. Bureaucratic and governmental rulings hand down decrees that reflect an expanding state and increasingly indicate that religious freedom is protected only as long as it’s restricted to houses of worship and the home.  

A few examples of current threats to religious liberty (a partial list) are the HHS Mandate, discrimination against Christians in public schools and universities, new restrictions on Christian adoption agencies, and a New York City ban on churches renting public schools for worship space.

These measures violate the rights of conscience and suggest faith is subservient to civil authority. Many Americans ignore or even support these policies, trusting that an expanded state will care for their every whim and need. But might we be gaining a feeling of political protection while losing spiritual freedom? In his book Christendom in Dublin, G.K. Chesterton declares, “Wherever the people do not believe in something beyond the world, they will worship the world. But, above all, they will worship the strongest thing in the world.” The weakening of Americans’ religious faith, it seems, has made them vulnerable to the appeal of an omnipotent state.

The American Founders disagreed about many things, but there was virtually universal agreement about the importance of virtue and religion in America. This was true even among those who were not orthodox in their Christianity. They knew that self-government required virtue and a strong religious influence. Religion itself served as the conscience of the state as well as limiting that state’s power. And it is the catalyst for free people to cultivate and expand liberties.

The Liberty Bell, a powerful symbol of American Independence, bears an inscription from Leviticus 25:10: “Proclaim Liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” It’s a reminder of the centrality of religious freedom and that civil authority is subservient to a higher power.

While it’s true that religious persecution in this country doesn’t rival more extreme forms elsewhere (it’s estimated that over 270 Christians are martyred daily for their faith), this is no reason to be complacent as religious liberty is chipped away.

Millions of immigrants flocked to America because of its religious freedom and helped to foster a kind of liberty that is unique and sacred around the world. But today many Americans often think of religion less as the guard and cultivator of liberty and more as a hindrance. This thinking in itself exposes the perilous threat to religious liberty in America and is alien to our founding.

Recapturing the fullness of religious liberty in America will require winning more than a few court cases. It will require a fundamental shift in how we view God and man and his relationship to the state.