In a class I co-taught on religious freedom last fall, many of the students seemed to arrive with a sense that there wasn’t much to talk about. In the U.S., we have always given individuals religious freedom, and we should keep doing that. If any question should arise the maxim of John Stuart Mill— “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins”—would resolve the matter quickly.
Happily, our location at least suggested the topic’s rich history. Our class took place in Providence, Rhode Island, two miles or so from the spot where Roger Williams, banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony on account of his views, stumbled out of the wilderness to begin a radical new experiment. In Massachusetts, Williams had spoken publicly against the punishment of religious dissenters. In Providence, he worked with others to establish bold protections for individual “liberty of conscience.” The fruits of that experiment were new forms of religious freedom, and protections for many religious minorities. Indeed, the proximity to our classroom was no accident. Among the religious minorities who sought out this liberty were Catholics, and there is a clear link to Rhode Island’s ultimate (and current) status as the most heavily Catholic state in the union.
As conversation got underway, however, I realized that many of our students held to assumptions that had to be challenged. In our conversations, the complexity and importance of religious freedom began to emerge.
First, many of our students understood freedom of religion as reducible to freedom of worship. Freedom to worship is certainly a crucial freedom, but freedom of religion is a much broader category, and one that goes beyond the private sphere into the public square. Freedom of religion involves the ability to organize schools and other charitable organizations, to enter into the political process with religious commitments, and generally to conduct oneself in accordance with one’s religious convictions and conscience. It is here, of course, in interaction with those whose religious convictions differ, that challenges can arise.
Second, many of our students assumed that the only interpretation of the First Amendment consisted in a Jeffersonian sense of a “wall of separation” between church and state. Thomas Jefferson used this phrase in a letter he penned in 1802, and it offers a metaphor that seems to be extremely stark: these two entities are to be separated in an absolute, with neither touching the other in any way. In the last fifty years or so, this has become an increasingly prevalent interpretation of the First Amendment. But it was not always so. Jefferson himself was more complicated in practice. As governor of Virginia, he called for public days of prayer, and as president, he directed federal funds to Christian missionaries and encouraged local governments to make land available for Christian purposes. John Adams, meanwhile, leaned more in the direction of what has come to be called the “accommodationist” view: the belief that religion is essential is fostering moral values required for maintaining civil order, and that religion is part of the national heritage. The precise meaning of the First Amendment is not simple, but it is crucial for the way in which we understand freedom of religion.
Finally, many of our students were simply unfamiliar with the tradition at the very heart of Christianity that requires fidelity to God before fidelity to any other authority, including civil government. They might have heard of early Christian martyrs, but they did not know that martyrs could have escaped their fate, if they would only have offered worship to Caesar. Even more immediately relevant, they did not know of the Thomistic tradition—essential to modern civil disobedience—that insists that laws not rooted in the larger ideal of justice are not to be regarded as laws at all. In some cases, disobedience to laws of this kind is actually a moral imperative.
Over the course of the semester, we discussed many topics, but these three especially made us all more aware of what is at stake in advancing claims of religious freedom—and why such claims must be treated with great care.
Holly Taylor Coolman is Assistant Professor of Theology at Providence College.