Since I keep hearing some of my students fret about the threat of ‘theocracy’ in this country, I thought maybe we should do a little political philosophy on the blog.
I am no defender of George W. Bush (or the neo-cons), but a ‘tyrant’ or a ‘theocrat’ he is not. What silliness, to be perfectly honest. This is as ridiculous as those who suggest that Obama is a Muslim. When I press these students to name a single policy as an example of our alleged move toward ‘theocracy’, they always come up silent. But that hardly seems to stop them from repeating, diligently and with all the appropriate defiant anger, such silly claims.
So let’s revisit what the First Amendment says about religion:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
There are two clauses that speak of religion, the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause. Richard John Neuhaus, in a recent article on this that I will here parrot, writes that recent jurisprudence has severely deformed the real (original) meaning here. He writes,
‘The deepest deformation is the subordinating of free exercise to no-establishment. Once we forget that no-establishment is a means and instrument in support of free exercise, it is a short step to talking about the supposed conflict or tension between the two provisions. And from there it is a short step to the claim, as it has been claimed in numerous court decisions, that the two parts of the religion clause are “pitted against one another” and must somehow be “balanced.” ’
As he points out, the consequence of this inverted understanding is that ‘whenever the government advances, religion must retreat’. But since government is constantly advancing into more and more areas of our social and personal lives, it is suggested that believing Americans must surrender their faith in the ‘public square’.
How absurd. When it is written that ‘Congress shall make no law’, it is clearly limiting government – not religion. The purpose of the First Amendment religion clauses IS NOT to limit religion or even religion’s place in the public square. The purpose of the clauses is to limit government from interfering with free (and open and public) religious expression. Religious persons and churches are left perfectly free to try to influence the government, all that is restricted is the government’s ability to interfere with the lives of churches and individual believers. Let me restate that, since this appears to be news to many secularists: the Religion Clauses are not meant to protect government from religion, rather they are meant to protect religion from ‘the overweening ambitions of the modern state.’ (Note that this free expression, then, is protected and could be appealed to even in those areas of life where the government may find itself involved – such as education.)
This is, of course, an ‘originalist’ interpretation (rather like the interpretation Scalia encouraged in his recent talk here). But it is also the most obvious – note that the entire First Amendment has the aim of limiting government’s power to interfere with free expression (of various sorts).