Religious freedoms in today’s America

Since the adoption of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1791, American citizens of all faiths have enjoyed “freedom of religion.” In recent years we have heard some in our country describe our First Amendment guarantee as “freedom of worship.” While it may seem a mere matter of semantics, this most recent interpretation of religious liberty marks a profound break with two centuries of American tradition as it places much narrower limits on the free exercise of religion that Americans have traditionally enjoyed.

Proponents of the “freedom of worship” interpretation of religious liberty believe citizens should be able to practice whatever curious rituals they desire provided they do so behind closed church doors or in the privacy of their own homes. However, it is just such a limitation that countermands the free exercise protected by the First Amendment and renders illegitimate the sort of Corporal Works of Mercy (feeding the hungry, nursing the sick, raising the orphaned, etc.) engaged in by so many in the Christian community.

So then what is it that motivates the innovators who seek to make the practice of religion a purely private affair? Rather than an overt antipathy for religion, it is a misguided devotion to mystical Progress that animates the majority of these advocates of a more limited religious liberty. Those who see history as an inevitable march toward earthly paradise believe they can bring about this transformation by chipping away at all worldly pretexts for conflict. And for those who believe in what has been called the Illusion of Ultimate Agreement (i.e. the end of mystical Progress), the free exercise of diverse religious traditions in the public sphere represents just such an obstacle.

Again, for some it is a matter of semantics but we are well reminded that words mean things and that the new interpretation of religious liberty currently taking shape in America is far more limited than what we have traditionally enjoyed. In fact, it is so narrow that by this very definition, Jesus’ own public ministry would have been outside the bounds of constitutional protection.

Kevin Ritter