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Free Religion

It is worth remembering what George Washington said in his farewell address about religion: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports …. Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

Here the first American president put his finger on the importance of preserving a freedom of religion within a society. In many parts of the world, religion inspires despotism, unending bloodshed, and war; but in the U.S. it was different. Many faiths, each vigorous in its truth-claims, were able to live at peace with each other and form the foundation of a society. The reason this peaceful state could exist was because the different faiths were reconciled to freedom, and indeed could serve as a bulwark of that freedom. It is a fiction of the Enlightenment that any claim to truth or objective standards of morality collapses any distinction between religion and civil law. In fact, this distinction lies at the core of American culture and Western civilization itself. That there is a distinction between religious authority and state power has been a constant line of thought from the ancient Hebraic world (in the separation of the religious from the civil courts) to our own, which came to be embodied in the American idea of religious pluralism. This does not mean complete separation. Religious faith must still undergird pluralist political and cultural institutions. Washington astutely recognized that this undergirding is a necessary precondition to a moral and prosperous society.

But presently there are disturbing aspects to the role of faith in American life. Public institutions, whether in government or the media, have been notoriously unfriendly to faith, and hardly ever take account of the role that religion plays in the lives of most Americans, except to criticize it. We have no official religion in the U.S., nor do our public institutions require or enforce a particular belief in public policy. This is as it should be. The American religious tradition depends on its free acceptance by believers; it is a faith that is not imposed. At the same time, we must recognize that it is impossible to come to terms with a proper understanding of morality without serious reflection on the transcendent meaning of life that is the substance of religion. If average citizens and public officials fail to reflect on this transcendent meaning, morality can lose its moorings and become nothing more than the policy decisions of the people in power. This is why George Washington rightly judged that religion is the foundational norming agent of morality within a free and virtuous society.