“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .” This is the wording of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in 1791 by the legislatures of three-fourths of the states.
Today, this First Amendment’s purpose has been lost. The first clause has been dramatically widened and twisted into the doctrine of “separation of church and state,” with the express intention of preventing religion — especially Christianity — from having any role in politics or the shaping of public policy. The result has been what Richard John Neuhaus famously called “the naked public square,” a forum supposedly devoid of any arbiter of values. In reality, the removal of ostensibly religious concerns from public discussion has not left a void. Rather, it has put in place a dominant secular naturalism, with its conviction about the irrelevance of religion and a stress on “diversity.” This philosophical view, which its adherents hold with a religious tenacity, permits no opposing views to enter into the debate. The so-called “separation of church and state” has resulted in a state-supported religion controlling the parameters of public discussion.
This, of course, was far from the intent of the framers of the First Amendment. Their intent, rather than to prevent religious interference in the political process, was to restrict the government from interfering in religious expression and practice. The first clause is not a restriction on religion, but a restriction on the legislative power of government: “Congress shall make no law . . .” In other words, Congress is not to pass legislation establishing a government-supported religion. This restriction applies to the Federal government, not to other governing bodies within the United States. For decades after the ratification of the First Amendment, several states continued to have state-supported churches such as the Congregational churches of Massachusetts. It was only later that the clear wording of the First Amendment was extended to cover state legislatures as well as the United States Congress, and twisted even further into the doctrine of “separation of church and state” as it is commonly understood today.
The second clause of the First Amendment is a critical one: Congress is not to prohibit the free exercise of religion. This clause, too, has been compromised by the doctrine of “separation of church and state,” to the extreme that public school students have been told not to bring Bibles into their classrooms, or a high school valedictorian is told not to pray, or to refer to Jesus, during a graduation ceremony. Recently we saw how a company’s Christian owners were originally compelled, by the Affordable Care Act, to provide their employees with insurance that covered the destruction of a fertilized human ovum, as a birth control measure; only a narrow Supreme Court decision prevented these Christians from being forced to become accessories to the murder of an unborn child, against their deeply held convictions.
Praying in public in the name of Jesus, or upholding the sanctity of human life in your business practices, are not things that diminish the good of society, even if some on the political left irrationally believe they do. But what about religious practices that do, in fact, endanger the well-being of others? What if a Muslim woman insists on wearing her full head covering for her driver’s license photo? The photo ID serves the legitimate purpose of identifying a person qualified to operate a motor vehicle, and of establishing the person’s identity in general, for the protection of the wider public. (Yet, in a Florida case, a woman was allowed to be photographed for her license wearing the Muslim covering.) To take a more drastic instance, what if a Muslim U.S. Army officer repeatedly voices his view that non-Muslims are to be suppressed, and follows up on his conviction with a mass murder of fellow servicemen to the cry “Allahu Akhbar” — as occurred in the “Fort Hood massacre”? The demeaning of women by forcible head covering and relegation to servitude, and the thrust to eliminate all who refuse to convert to Islam (as seen currently in the gruesome acts of the “Islamic State” in Syria and Iraq), are not harmless activities that have no effect on the public good. Are these ostensible “religious” beliefs covered by the wording of the framers of the First Amendment, that Congress shall not prohibit the free exercise of religion?
The problem, clearly, lies in today’s inclusivist tendency to treat all religions the same, with equal indifference — except that, in the name of “diversity,” detrimental non-Christian beliefs get a pass, while benign Christian beliefs are vilified. But the truth is that all religions are not equal in their contributions to the good of society. Is a religion that demeans women and demands “Convert, or die!” equal to a religion that teaches, “Let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10), and accordingly has built schools and hospitals and undertakes projects such as building wells to supply African children with clean water?
The framers wrote that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .” But what religion did they have in mind? The American nation had been shaped by values emerging from the tradition of Judaism and Christianity; when the framers spoke of “religion” they did not have Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism or some other religion in mind, but the various groups based on biblical faith. The First Amendment was put in place to prevent Congress from favoring one Christian denomination over another, and to prevent the suppression of any biblically based group’s exercise of its faith and practice.
Rightly understanding the meaning and intent of the First Amendment’s “religious liberty” clauses requires a determination that not all religions are the same, or can be treated in the same way. The resurrection of Jesus Christ validates biblical faith as the only religion that is true, and worthy of protection under the First Amendment; all other religions are false, and their detrimental and violent aspects should not be given free reign in the name of “religious liberty.” To apply the First Amendment according to its intended purpose, our nation’s leaders and judiciary must recognize the priority of the religion centered in Messiah Jesus. “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).