In light of Memorial Day, and in grateful memory of the one million American men and women, in all of our nation’s wars, who died to protect our freedoms, allow me to share three patriotic principles, which highlight three freedoms we are in danger of losing, not through war but in peacetime, as we fail to stand up for our rights. These are statements people make regularly about our American way of life, usually misrepresenting the nature of the concept in such a way as to distort completely its original purpose.
1. Legislating morality
How many times have you heard people make the following statement? “You cannot legislate morality!” By that, of course, what they mean is that, “Simply legislating morality is no guarantee that people will obey the morality that you legislate.” Ultimately, they are only pointing out the futility of laws. Taken to its logical extreme, this philosophy would result in the absence of any laws at all and a state of anarchy.
Behind every good law, if you look deeply enough, you will find some moral principle to justify it. The speed limit, for example, saves lives through the reduction of traffic accidents, while preserving the peace and quiet of neighborhoods. There is a moral basis behind it.
In the same manner, we have outlawed armed robbery. At the core of this legislation is the moral principle that what belongs to someone else should not be taken by threatening the use of a hand gun. Because it is wrong, we have written a law against it.
One might even go so far as to say that, “Morality is precisely that which we legislate.” In fact, logic dictates that we will either legislate morality, if indeed our laws are just as in the examples above, or we will legislate immorality, as in the case of legalized abortion, which claims the lives of almost a million babies each year in America.
So the next time someone rants, “You cannot legislate morality!” then I plead with you to insist that, in fact, people of good will have absolutely no other course of action open to them than to do exactly that. Whether or not people will obey the good and moral laws that are written is a separate issue entirely. The entire legal process begins, but does not end, with the writing of moral legislation.
2. Separating church and state
“You can’t pray or mention God on this public government property, since there’s such a thing as separation of church and state.” If this were truly the interpretation of this phrase, how could we explain the crosses at Arlington National Cemetery, the prayerful inscription by John Adams on the marble fireplace at the White House, or the engraved quotation of Micah 6:8 in the Library of Congress?
What the secularists seem to imply by invoking this phrase is that all religious sentiment must be removed from our public discourse whenever we address those laws and policies about which God’s Holy Word informs our perspectives.
In our Declaration of Independence, when Jefferson wrote that “all men are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” he and I may differ in our understanding of the exact nature of this “Creator,” which is simply to say that I reject his deism in favor of orthodox Christianity. However, apart from a theological quibble (albeit a major one), the fact remains that our entire American experiment is predicated on the religious principle that God has given us rights. Rather than separating public life from religion, we have in fact based our public life upon religion.
The “separation” of church and state should always be understood as limited to the institutions themselves. Indeed, as long as people of faith are permitted to live in America, and as long as their religious views are allowed and even encouraged to inform their political philosophy, it is absolutely impossible to separate the “Christian of the church” from the “citizen of the state,” since they are one and the same person.
By “separation” it is simply meant that no “state” will adopt an official “church,” as was the case in colonial Massachusetts with regard to Congregationalism, and in colonial Virginia with regard to Anglicanism. In Rome, they were Catholics. In England, they were what we call Episcopalians. But in America, our plan was to “separate” church from state institutionally, so as not to favor, or to discourage, any particular belief system.
In response to those whose warped view of church-state separation leads them to propose that people of faith must check their cherished convictions at the door of the town hall or the voting booth, I feel compelled to point out the difference between “separation” and “removal.” While the church and state remain separate entities institutionally, it does not at all follow that we must remove, for example, our Christian beliefs, our Christian speech or our Christian practices simply because we exist in the state. I do not lose one shred of my Christian identity or freedom of speech and expression when I walk from my house to the public park, the school, the library or the courthouse. It is NOT separation of the Christian from the citizen.
3. Prohibiting free exercise
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…
Thus begins the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, designed to provide us with religious liberty before we even address the freedoms of speech and press and assembly and petitioning for change. Any but the most biased interpretations of the First Amendment must fundamentally embrace these words as a freedom “of” religion clause rather than a freedom “from” religion clause.
Generally, American secularists have succeeded in redefining this right by distorting everything BEFORE the comma in the First Amendment passage cited above, and by ignoring everything AFTER the comma.
In the first part of the passage, Congress is forbidden from establishing a religion, a matter which we have frankly already covered in the discussion of church-state separation above. However, while it is one thing to “establish a religion,” it is quite another thing to enact laws which promote, for example, godly values, or which allow teenagers to speak of God in public or to pray before an athletic competition or to print signs with Scriptures written upon them or to wear a Christian t-shirt or a cross to school.
These actions do not violate the Constitution since a religion is not being “established” at all. Rather, a religion is merely being “practiced.” The outworking of our Christian faith in the daily lives of our citizens is manifestly NOT something the framers of our Constitution sought to forbid. Allowing these things no more “establishes a religion” than teaching my child the alphabet “establishes a school.”
Regarding the second part of the passage, the so-called “free exercise” clause, one almost wishes it had been listed first in the syntax of the sentence. While I do not pretend to improve upon that which is likely Madison’s wording, imagine this: Congress shall not prohibit the free exercise of religion, or make any law respecting the establishment of one…
In the 1700’s, they were more concerned about a specific religion being enforced by the state upon its citizens. The idea that the state would actually take an action that might prohibit religious expression was clearly the secondary concern, almost an afterthought. Today, the challenge is entirely reversed. Is there a person alive who believes America is about to sanction one particular religious denomination and enforce it upon all of our citizens? Clearly, the “establishment of religion” section is no longer a primary concern.
However, we have certainly played fast and loose with the “free exercise” section, limiting most especially in our schools the freedom of Christian speech, expression and prayers, the inclusion of Bibles and other religious literature in our libraries and, essentially, the prohibiting of the “free exercise” of our faith in a public square increasingly void of any reference to God at all.
When we “prohibit the free exercise thereof” we effectively establish a de facto secular state, in which courthouses may not feature manger scenes at Christmas, and children enjoy “Winter” Break instead of “Christmas” break each December. Ironically, the goal of communists to remove every vestige of Christian faith from our national life has in fact advanced more rapidly in the years since the Cold War was won than it did while we were still engaged in fighting it, an observation which brings me back to our consideration of Memorial Day.
When I think of the one million people who gave their lives for my freedoms, I do not want their sacrifice to have been in vain. However, if I refuse to cherish the real meaning of religious liberty, if I stop insisting that it be accurately represented, then I dishonor their graves and their sacrifice, carelessly throwing away in my apathy that which they bravely died to protect.