Being a promoter of individual liberty, one of my firm principles is that anyone is free to hold to any religion he or she likes, without harassment.
That belief is also written in to the foundation of America: The very first words of the first amendment to its Constitution say “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Religion, therefore, is COMPLETELY OFF LIMITS to government. Anything goes!
Now, the freedom to start, finish, or practice any religion has particular relevance when the religion is a minor or unfamiliar one, whose beliefs appear bizarre to many, or whose practices are rumoured to be sinister. Methodists, for example, hardly need the protection of the First Amendment (though they certainly have it) — nobody wants to surround a Methodist chapel with BATF goons and Army tanks and tear gas and M-16s and loud recordings of tortured rabbits. Rather, it pertains to the protection of cults, like Koresh’s.
But — oddity or mainstream — there’s no doubt: In America, any religion can, under that Supreme Law, operate freely. Including the Religious Right.
The only valid limit I can see is that no religion may trespass outside its own domain; while all of them are certainly free to preach, they are not free to compel anyone to listen, or to become or remain a member, for that would be to deny to someone else the very right they are exercising themselves — that is, the right to believe and do whatever they wish. If someone tells a priest or evangelist “thanks, but no thanks”, then nothing in the First Amendment entitles the earnest bringer of good tidings to strap his prospect down on a rack and make him pay attention.
Similarly, while Christians would regard Sunday as a day when they should do no labour, they are welcome to practice that belief — but not to seek to impose it by law on everyone else. Crucial difference: Sure, they can preach and persuade, to any who will listen; but they must NOT compel, for others have an equal right to hold (for example) the view that Sunday is a day like any other — or that Saturday, being the seventh, is the day to be kept holy.
Colonial America was riddled, unfortunately, with bigotry of that kind. Good Puritan people lived their virtuous lives, but could not abide the idea that some members of society could choose a different lifestyle — so they got their virtues enacted into Law and even executed some of those who dissented. Came the Revolution, and that odious practice was terminated. Until Waco, that is.
“Thou shalt not steal”
One of the major influences in public life today is the Religious Right. One of its organisations is the “Christian Coalition”, some of whose members openly boast that they want to grab control of the levers of political power — at both local and national levels — and then to use that power for good as they see it.
They regard for example the teaching of Darwinian theory as wrong, and their remedy is to retain the existing government school monopoly but just to change the curriculum — to teach instead a creationist view of our origins. And we need not argue that such beliefs are wrong, for they are completely entitled to hold and teach them, but not to compel anyone to listen or agree.
Now, taking tax dollars under threat of seizure of your home, and spending that money to preach creationism to your children against your will, is a prime example of just that kind of compulsion — like the socialists, but in reverse. By trying to impose a set of values (many of which are very fine and wholesome) on the next generation, they become no better than the humanists they want to displace! It very effectively denies other people their absolute right to dissent — to practice their own religion or none, as guaranteed by the First Amendment.
I’ve tried on occasion to put this simple viewpoint to members of the Religious Right, and have been very disappointed with their response. They seem to me very definitely to want a whole lot more than that Amendment secures for them; they want not so much the freedom to exist in peace and publish their views, but rather to be able to compel non-members to agree with them, by Law. So eager do they seem to do that, that they trample all over some of their own stated principles, such as the Commandment that forbids stealing. Stealing would be the removal of someone’s property against his will, you’ll agree.
Therefore, taxation is stealing; and so clearly, taxation is contrary to their religion, be it Jewish or Christian. Yet they are so eager to use the force of government to compel non-members to conform to their ideal lifestyle and beliefs, that they swallow that inconsistency whole and rationalise that in some mysterious way taxation is NOT theft. One of them even told me it’s not theft “because a majority of the people have voluntarily voted for it”!!
I wonder if there is any other doctrine which an Evangelical would regard as Revealed Truth on the grounds that a democratic majority has so declared it?
What I perceive here is a very profound hypocrisy. These people adhere to their principles for just as long as it suits their agenda — but no further. They preach love and compassion (and frequently practice it) but their respect for the individual rights of others dissolves, when offered the temptation to achieve their aims by force instead of persuasion.
That being so, I’ve come to regard some of these well-intentioned and otherwise gentle people as among the most formidable enemies of freedom in America today. Government is a terrible idea: But a government that claims to rule us by Divine Right is the worst kind of all.
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