That’s how I like to see it – religion flanked on either side by freedom and liberty. Liberty of religious belief and expression, freedom of religion from government intervention and freedom of government from religious intervention. Freedom of thought, freedom of mind, freedom of belief.
When I was a kid, it was very common for us to say, “It’s a free country. You can’t tell me what to do.” We used it in a wide range of situations, some of which didn’t exactly work out.
It turns out that mom and dad and other family members, your teachers and other secular authorities, the religious authorities of your family’s membership, and the mean bully kids all can actually tell you what to do, even in a free country.
One of the benefits of growing up was getting to decide who I was going to allow to be in a position to tell me what to do. Myself, I prefer a light touch and lots of autonomy, but others need to be regulated from the outside to feel secure. Choosing our authority-figures wisely is a developmental task for every one of us.
The separation of church and state, the resolute decision to keep the two separate – for the benefit of both sides as well as for the rights of each and every American citizen – is one of the most significant of our national contributions to the world.
It is also one of the most important aspects of the American heritage that we hold in common – beyond our differences.
America is about freedom, America is the land of free. Free thought, free expression, free belief (or unbelief!).
Have we so forgotten that? Let’s not throw it all away.
Do not be misled. Religious movements of all kinds thrive in America precisely because of this set of traditions, and our advances in science and technology depend on them too.
Here is a little collection of quotations on this set of topics – I find these resonant today. Comment if there are more you’d like to add.
“Intellectual freedom is essential to human society. Freedom of thought is the only guarantee against an infection of people by mass myths, which, in the hands of treacherous hypocrites and demagogues, can be transformed into bloody dictatorships.” – Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov, Russian nuclear scientist.
“Protecting religious freedoms may be more important in the late twentieth century than it was when the Bill of Rights was ratified. We live in a pluralistic society, with people of widely divergent religious backgrounds or with none at all. Government cannot endorse beliefs of one group without sending a clear message to non-adherents that they are outsiders.” – Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, in a speech to a Philadelphia conference on religion in public life, May 1991
“Religious beliefs and religious expression are too precious to be either proscribed or prescribed by the state.” – Justice Anthony M. Kennedy
“Voluntary, individual, silent prayer has never been banned or discouraged in the public schools. The Supreme Court has banned state-sponsored religious services. Those who advocate prayer services in the public schools do not want voluntary prayer. They want the government to be officially involved in promoting and sponsoring prayer services so as to put pressure on children to engage in public prayer. They apparently do not care whether parents want their children to engage in public prayer or be indoctrinated with sectarian religious ideas. The object is to provide a captive classroom audience that will be exposed to the prayers of those with a religious message, which they deliver in the form of a prayer.” – John M. Swomley, Religious Liberty and the Secular State: The Constitutional Context, 1987, p. 128.
“One of the embarrassing problems for the early nineteenth-century champions of the Christian faith was that not one of the first six Presidents of the United States was an orthodox Christian.” – Mortimer Adler, The Annals of America: Great Issues in American Life, Vol. II, 1968, p. 420.
“We will be a better country when each religious group can trust its members to obey the dictates of their own religious faith without assistance from the legal structure of the country.” – Margaret Mead, anthropologist, Redbook magazine, February, 1963
“It is implicit in the history and character of American public education that the public schools serve a uniquely public function: the training of American citizens in an atmosphere free of parochial, divisive, or separatist influence of any sort – an atmosphere in which children may assimilate a heritage common to all American groups and religions. This is a heritage neither theistic nor atheistic, but simply civic and patriotic.” – Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, Abington Township S.D. v. Schempp, 1963
“The separation of church and state is extremely important to any of us who holds to the original traditions of our nation. To change these traditions by changing our traditional attitude toward public education would be harmful to our whole attitude of tolerance in the religious area. If we look at situations which have arisen in the past in Europe and other world areas, I think we will see the reasons why it is wise to hold to our early traditions.” – Eleanor Roosevelt, New York World-Telegram, June 23, 1949
“Once you attempt legislation upon religious grounds, you open the way for every kind of intolerance and religious persecution.” – William Butler Yeats, 1937
“You can only protect your liberties in this world by protecting the other man’s freedom. You can only be free if I am free.” – Clarence S. Darrow, 1857-1938, American attorney.
“I do not believe that any type of religion should ever be introduced into the public schools of the United States.” – Thomas Alva Edison
“The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities.” – John E. E. Dalberg (Lord Acton, British historian), The History of Freedom and Other Essays, 1907
“In all ages, hypocrites, called priests, have put crowns upon the heads of thieves, called kings.” – Robert G. Ingersoll, Prose Poems and Selections, 1884.
“A civil ruler dabbling in religion is as reprehensible as a clergyman dabbling in politics. Both render themselves odious as well as ridiculous.” – James Cardinal Gibbons, 1834-1921, second American to be made a Catholic cardinal, Faith of Our Fathers, 1877.
“The structure of our government has, for the preservation of civil liberty, rescued the temporal institutions from religious interference. On the other hand, it has secured religious liberty from the invasion of the civil authority.” – U.S. Supreme Court, 1872
“… I questioned the faithful of all communions; I particularly sought the society of clergymen, who are the depositories of the various creeds and have a personal interest in their survival … all thought the main reason for the quiet sway of religion over their country was the complete separation of church and state. I have no hesitation in stating that throughout my stay in America I met nobody, lay or cleric, who did not agree about that.” – Alexis de Tocqueville, writing of his travels in America in 1830
“All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate which would be oppression.” – Thomas Jefferson, “First Inaugural Address,” March 4, 1801
“Let the human mind loose. It must be loose. It will be loose. Superstition and Dogmatism cannot confine it.” – John Adams, letter to John Quincy Adams, November 13, 1816.
The stated purpose of the American government: “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity” – Preamble to the Constitution, 1787
“Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth.” – Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782
“Religious matters are to be separated from the jurisdiction of the state not because they are beneath the interests of the state, but, quite to the contrary, because they are too high and holy and thus are beyond the competence of the state.” – Isaac Backus, Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty, 1773.
“I esteem it above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other.” – John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration, 1689
“Enforced uniformity confounds civil and religious liberty and denies the principles of Christianity and civility. No man shall be required to worship or maintain a worship against his will.” – Roger Williams, The Bloudy Tenet of Persecution, 1644
“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.” – John Milton, Areopagitica, 1644
“It is a heretic that makes the fire, not she which burns in it.” – William Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale, Act 2, Scene 3
“And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father, which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.” Matthew 6:5-6.