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Religion has its rights in the public square
There are no historical or rational grounds for denying faith a public voice.
Recently, thousands of student journalists gathered at the annual National High School Journalism Conference to celebrate the First Amendment and its guarantees that ensure journalists the freedom to engage in their profession. In attendance were students from all walks of life, including hundreds of Christian students. Ironically, at a session on bullying, those Christian students found themselves and their beliefs being berated and mocked by Dan Savage.
“We can learn to ignore the bulls**t in the Bible about gay people,” Savage proclaimed to the students. “We ignore bulls**t in the Bible about all sorts of things.”
While rarely expressed in such colorful language, this is an all-too-common sentiment: that Christianity is irrelevant and has no place in public life. The increasing prevalence of these views makes it more important than ever for Christians—and all freedom-loving citizens—to embrace the role faith plays in preserving our liberties. So let’s address a few common arguments in favor of excluding faith from public life.
Some say that the U.S. Constitution’s so-called “separation of church and state” prohibits Christianity (or any religion) from influencing the public sphere. But this extreme “separation” doesn’t exist. It’s not in our Constitution, Bill of Rights, or any other founding document. As courts have explained, “The First Amendment does not demand a wall of separation between church and state.”
This “separation” is a myth created by those on the far left who seek to sanitize our schools, workplaces, and public life of religion. They base it on a phrase—taken out of context—from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists in 1802. Jefferson wrote to reassure the Baptists that the First Amendment would preclude the federal government’s intrusion into religious matters between denominations. Rather than shielding government from religion, the First Amendment was intended to protect religion from the influence of government. It certainly was not meant to marginalize people of faith or exclude them from the public square.
Others claim that Christians are “judgmental” and simply want to force their beliefs on the population at large. But few, if any, Christians seek to establish an American theocracy. Instead, they see the Bible as providing a moral foundation for society—one which our Founding Fathers believed was vital to our nation’s continued success. Does anyone seriously question whether our society would be better off if more people followed the Ten Commandments…if more people showed proper respect for God and their parents…if fewer people lied or committed adultery?
As Americans move further and further from this moral compass, they fall into greater levels of selfishness and debauchery. Yet Christians who stand against the flow and cry “Stop!” are labeled as judgmental.
The Christian call for a return to biblical values is not a cry of judgment, it is one of love. It is the same love displayed when a mother warns her child about a hot stove, or a college student warns an intoxicated friend that he should take a cab. Christians, as those of all faiths, have the right—in fact, the duty—to to share what they think is best for society and to warn their fellow citizens when society strays from its foundational values.
Finally, many say that the contributions of Christianity to society are irrelevant. Really? Let’s look at the “irrelevant” contribution of Christianity to our society. Approximately 1 out of 5 hospital beds in this country are operated by religious hospitals. Clearly irrelevant. Evangelical Christians donate more than three times as much on average to nonprofit organizations than Americans as a whole: $4,260 per year as compared with $1308. Also irrelevant. More than 900 colleges, universities, and institutions of higher learning in our nation are affiliated with the Christian faith. Each one, apparently irrelevant.
And we cannot forget how “irrelevant” Martin Luther King, Jr.’s faith was to his work in the civil rights movement or how “irrelevant” Abraham Lincoln’s faith was to his call for a “new birth of freedom.”
Christianity is relevant because it is the source of the noblest virtues of our people. It motivates our charitable activities and our care for the sick. It drives us to learn, to explore, and to develop the next generation of leaders. Most importantly, it tells us of the innate dignity of every human our Creator lovingly crafted. And thus, when religious expression and religious activity are given the full measure of freedom recognized by the First Amendment, we can be confident that the better angels of our nature will prevail.
Let’s return to Mr. Savage’s presentation one last time. As scores of students walked out of the session in protest, Savage offered a weak apology: “I apologize if I hurt anyone's feelings. But. I have a right to defend myself.”
Yes, Mr. Savage, you do have the right to defend yourself. You may even have the right to unleash a profanity-laden tirade against Christianity to a roomful of silent teenagers. But as you curse the Bible and those who believe it, you may want to take a moment to ask yourself where the freedom of speech that enables you to do so comes from…and where the freedom of press and your freedom to (apparently) believe in no religion at all comes from, too.
Those who decry our nation’s Christian heritage and the continuing contributions that Christians make to public life simply fail to recognize that the freedoms that make America great are intrinsically linked to the religious beliefs upon which our nation was founded. The Declaration of Independence acknowledges that we are endowed with unalienable rights by our Creator, and such rights remain the foundation of the First Amendment.
These rights are not, and should not be seen as being, dependent solely upon a government that may decide to take them away as it sees fit. And those who seek to knock down this cornerstone of our republic need to beware lest the house come toppling down with it.
David Cortman is senior counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund (www.telladf.org), a legal alliance employing a unique combination of strategy, training, funding, and litigation to protect and preserve religious liberty, the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family.
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