A Place in the Square

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” — First Amendment to the US Constitution.

“The constitutional freedom of religion [is] the most inalienable and sacred of all human rights.” — Thomas Jefferson: Virginia Board of Visitors Minutes, 1819.

Students from a North Carolina Christian school were recently visiting the White House. During a respite, students joined hands and began a prayer on behalf of the President. After a short while, the Secret Service broke up the prayer and reportedly told the group to “take it outside.” Perhaps the moment of prayer was slowing the progress of the tour group or perhaps the Secret Service was just awkward and did not know what to do. The scene was an inconsequential little incident, but it may serve to remind us how uncomfortable religion in public places makes many feel in what Stephen Carter has called the “culture of disbelief.”When Carter wrote the Culture of Disbelief in 1993, the Christian Right, at least the part typified by Pat Buchanan’s speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention, convinced some that churches were conspiring to institute a theocracy. Religion, many contemporary Americans believe, ought to be treated as a hobby indulged on Sunday mornings, with no real place in serious public discussion. Stephen Carter is a political Liberal and religious believer who, by contrast, laments that religion has been virtually eliminated from the public square, denuding public discussion of an important source of wisdom. When people of faith speak, people squirm.

The first freedom protected by the First Amendment is freedom of religion. Freedom of religion is different and distinct from freedom of speech. It is not just freedom of conscience. The First Amendment protects religious institutions from the state.

The worst political outcome is tyranny and one way to prevent tyranny is to have different and independent centers of authority. Religion is one such center. Religion and spirituality are at their best when they act in resistance. Stephen Carter calls religion a “bulwark against state authority” and suggests that “the idea of religion as an independent moral force … is crucial …to the role of religions as intermediate institutions to which citizens owe a separate allegiance.”

In 1990, the Roman Catholic Archbishop John Cardinal O’Connor warned that Catholic public officials who supported abortion rights might be formally separated from the church, i.e., excommunicated. The action was considered an inappropriate intrusion of religious belief into public debate. Stephen Carter cites New York University law professor Burt Neborne as arguing, “When you accept public office, you’re not a Catholic, you’re not a Jew. You’re an American.” Carter argues it is possible to be both a person of faith and in public office.

Carter contends that Liberals cannot, on the one hand, argue that religious leaders have no business becoming involved in public policy issues, when they did not complain when religious leaders supported positions they favored. There was no claim by Liberals that religions should mind their own business when the Catholic Church in the 1950s threatened to excommunicate public officials who supported segregation. Liberals did not object when Catholic bishops supported the ill-fated nuclear freeze movement of the 1980s. Liberals did not oppose the Southern Baptist Church when it nurtured and supported the civil rights movement. If you accept the legitimacy of Rev. Jesse Jackson in the public square, Rev. Pat Robertson cannot be excluded because of his faith perspective.

Carter’s most trenchent argument is that government has a positive obligation not just to be neutral with respect to religion, but also to be deferential to and accommodate religious observance. When otherwise reasonable legislation comes into conflict with personal religious practice, Carter argues that the state should have to show a compelling interest before restricting such a practice. In a relatively rare act of deference, in Wisconsin v. Yoder, the Supreme Court agreed the state interest in the education of children was not superior to belief by the Amish that they should remove their children from school after the 8th grade. More often, such deference has not been shown. In Employment Division v. Smith, the Court did not respect the rights of members of the Native American Church to use the controlled substance peyote, a religious practice that predates the United States. There is probably not a little religious, let us say “insensitivity,” in the failure to recognize that state should not have prevented the “free exercise of religion” in that case.

If we expect people to be true to their conscience, we must accept that sometimes religiosity informs that conscience. This represents healthy respect for plurality in a democracy. Some people are thoroughly spiritual. They cannot and ought not be asked to separate the core of what they are in exchange for the right to be seriously listened to in the public square.

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