The American Experiment in Religious Freedom: Historical Background
The American experiment in religious freedom has stood the test of time. It has worked especially well for members of minority faiths, but followers of every religion have benefited. Religious faith flourishes here with an intensity unequalled in the industrialized world. And at the same time, an extraordinary diversity of faiths coexists here with a minimum of conflict.
Jews, in particular, have found in America a set of safeguards without parallel in the history of the Diaspora. As individuals and as a community, American Jews have thrived mightily. It would be one of history's great ironies if that success made them complacent.
Certain root principles protect the religious freedom of all Americans. Foremost among them is that of separation of church and state. Our nation's founding document, the Constitution, recognized no official church, and the Bill of Rights, guaranteeing the separation of church and state, was passed soon after the Constitution was ratified.
The American devotion to that principle stems from our country's traditional role as a haven from religious oppression. The first settlers knew that religious liberty consists primarily of freedom from state interference. They knew from harsh experience what happens when the state is in-volved in the practice of religion. That can of worms had been opened all too often in the Old World, where thousands of years of persecution had resulted. The Old World experience also showed that religion thrives best when it arises spontaneously, not at the direction of the state. The marriage of church and state often led to the corruption of the church and the disaffection of the faithful. The new republic was designed to avoid those consequences.
The Founders kept it simple though. Their First Amendment formula for religious freedom was made up of just two parts: 1) No state establishment of religion; and 2) No state restriction on religious practice.
What were the results of that formula?
James Madison, the chief architect of the Constitution, observed of the young nation that "the [religious] devotion of the people has been manifestly increased by the total separation of the church from the state."
Count Alexis de Tocqueville, an early visitor to the United States, and one whose penetrating insights still ring true, wrote that organized religion held "quiet sway over the country because of the complete separation of church and state." De Tocqueville went on to conclude that "any alliance with any political power whatsoever is bound to be burdensome for religion. It does not need their support in order to live, and in serving them it may die."
Do those early observations still apply?
Looking over the evidence, the Founders' formula has served this nation well. The United States today is home to more than 1,500 different religious faiths attending nearly 400,000 places of worship. And all without the strife that troubles so much of the rest of the world. Now, however, plans are afoot to tinker with that formula. No one is coming right out and saying it, but the effect of a number of current legislative proposals would be to undermine the principles behind the First Amendment.
These proposals come gift wrapped in the
most benign and attractive ways. Their stated purposes are such that
few could argue with them. But on close examination, they are flawed
in ways that would undermine the rights of all of us -- believers
and non-believers alike.
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