RELIGION IN PUBLIC LIFE RECONSIDERED
By Steven M. Farrell
What bothers me the most about this incessant charge is that, almost without exception, these modern-day martyrs for protection from religion unthinkingly do their best screaming not in response to forced religion, no, but in reply to what is, in fact, the free exercise of religious speech within earshot of their hypersensitive ears.
And so, here's my retort.
Do any of these people ever bother to think before they gripe?
How is it–I'm forced to ask–the mere opening of one's mouth in defense of a religious principle, or the simple electronic configuration on a computer screen of a deeply held conviction, forces anything down anyone's throat?
Force is an awfully strong five-letter word to cut from a dictionary and paste into the context of speech.
The Founders of the American Republic and the thinkers who influenced them had a few intelligent things to say about what does and does not constitute religious force. Please listen in. Maybe you'll learn a thing or two.
First, turning to Webster's 1828 Dictionary, we find "force" defined as follows:
As a noun: "Violence; power exerted against will or consent; compulsory power."
And as a verb transitive: "To compel; to constrain to do or to forbear, by the exertion of a power not resistible. Men are forced to submit to conquerors. Masters force their slaves to labor."
These two definitions, apropos of the legal context of forced religion, present a very strong "Do as I say or else" proposition – that is, "Worship my way, or else be killed, flogged, imprisoned, fined, robbed, or politically disenfranchised."
An Early American Church Position:
Nearly everyone understood this. For instance, in 1835, one faith declared, concerning the legal limits of Church discipline:
Similarly, as far as religious influence in government, the following ought to be unlawful: "wherein one religious society is fostered and another proscribed in its spiritual privi- leges, and the individual rights of its members as citizens, denied." (2)
And so, we have again:
Force in religion involves taking away or threatening life, limb, property, or civil rights. Such force is never legitimate, not by church and not by state.
As a preventive measure, a state church ought to be unlawful.
John Locke on Toleration:
The above 19th century definitions coincide with John Locke's 1689 approach in "A Letter Concerning Toleration." (3) Here Locke laid out seven commonsense principles as to what is forced religion, and what is not.
1. The "sword, or other instruments of force" can never be used to convert, to proscribe "outward forms" of religious worship, or to administer church discipline.
The reason is simple:
Locke understood what moderns miss: Opposition to force in religious affairs was in- troduced into public life by those who sought to reverence God's order of free agency, while national church schemes were set up by those antagonistic to the order of God, with this proof: Never was there a national church which promoted moral behavior, the real crux of religion.
2. Nevertheless, Locke taught, short of force, the Church does have a right to discipline its members, as already indicated.
3. So long as religious organizations comply with rules 1 and 2, the excommunicated have no legal grounds to appeal to civil authority, because there is no "civil right" to member- ship in a "spontaneous [or voluntary] society." Membership in private societies is a privilege, and every such society has a "fundamental and immutable right" to make its own rules.
Or, to apply the above to civil rights claims by those today who have been fired or dis- missed from church employment or, for example, the Boy Scouts on moral grounds, the true nature of the gripe unveils an attempt to use civil force to impose disbelief, disorder, and debauchery upon a religious or private society.
4. While government officials are forbidden to bring force to bear in matters of faith, they do have every right and responsibility to use every tool of religious persuasion at their disposal. Said Locke:
What's wrong with that? Locke makes sense.
5. If we think about it, the dividing line between freedom and force in religion is pretty simple, not confusing: "[I]t is one thing to persuade, another to command; one thing to press with arguments, another with penalties." Freedom of speech, press, and assembly are the truest friends of religious liberty. Attempts to take these away are the real agents of force.
6. Religious persuasion belongs in public life for another vital reason: Without it, "the whole subject-matter of law-making is taken away."
Religious morals, taught Locke, are "indifferent things," consisting of basic rights and wrongs common to all faiths, and common among all unbelievers (through reason), as well, and it is upon these common rights and wrongs all law rests.
7. Finally, religious morality ought to be defended, not just by persuasion, but by force on those matters which concern the safety of the state and the individual. "This is the orig- inal use [of government]," simply the protection of man's God-given rights. Or, as Issac Backus wrote in his 1773 "An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty," "the only crimes which fall within the magistrate's jurisdiction to punish, are only such as would work ill to our neighbor." (4)
Locke and Backus are speaking of justice, or the negative application of moral principle in the law. To defend such laws as coming from God--or to say, in essence, "the Moral Governor of the Universe warns that beyond this point lies anarchy, not liberty"--does not impose religious belief, for it does not control religious conduct, nor impose positive behavior and choices. What it does do is set a fixed negative or standard of this far and no farther, drawing a line in the titanium that those who cross over this line, violently disturbing the peace, striking a blow at every man's liberty, will be punished, now and forever, making our rights, therefore, truly inalienable.
Thus, Locke concludes:
Unlike the moral cowards who tremble in the presence of God-hating intimidation groups and their incessant charges that mere verbal and written defenses of religious principles constitute force, our progenitors knew what force was, and what it was not, and, as moral beings, stood up responsibly, faithfully, on God's side, as they saw it, in whatsoever situation they were, in public and in private, in the legislature and in the classroom, for the reasons stated above, plus one more.
Noah Webster's Honest Insight:
Revolutionary soldier, legislator, judge, American Founder, and creator of the aforemen- tioned Webster's Dictionary, Noah Webster wrote:
So, here's the truth: Denouncing religious speech in public places or by public servants as force is a farce. What is speech but persuasion? What is the voicing of one's convic- tions but a right and the stamp of a person's individuality? What is the defense of public morality in a republic but common sense? Whence cometh the source of our free laws and our rights but from God?
Saint and sinner, believer and scoffer, if they look back to history, back to faith, back to reason, will soon realize that the right to engage in religious speech in public and in private is a fundamental right every person possesses.
Forced religion? Force is a far, far different issue. In fact, outlawing religious speech in public–now that is force, that is the position of the enemy of human freedom.
1. Doctrine and Covenants, 134: 10. Salt Lake City, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
2. Ibid., 134: 9.
3. Locke, John. "A Letter Concerning Religious Toleration, 1689, available online at www.constitution.org
4. Sandoz, Ellis, Ed. "Political Sermons of the Founding Era, 1730-1805," Liberty Fund, Indianapolis, 1998, p. 336. See also Romans 13: 1-10. Backus wrote in defense of the Baptist Church.
5. Webster, Noah. "History of the United States," New Haven: Durrie & Peck, 1832, p. 300.
Religion, Secularism, & America
NewsMax and Sierra Times columnist and pundit, Steven M. Farrell, is the author of Dark Rose, an inspirational novel reviewers are calling a modern classic.
Steven Farrell is also author of God and the Gavel, a non-faction work which explores that difficult question, "What is the proper role of religion and morality in public life?" God and the Gavel is expected to be released for publication in the very near future.
Farrell is the former managing editor of Right Magazine and is a widely published research writer. Prior to his career in writing, Farrell served 12 years in the United States Air Force as a communications security manager and controller, received a Bachelor's degree from the University of New York’s, Regents College (now Excelsior), worked four years in the public school system, and spent ten years in direct sales.
One of the more popular columnists on the Internet, Farrell is best known for his faithful and thoughtful defenses of the United States Constitution, Judeo-Christian morality, and honest-to-goodness, non-partisan politics.
Residing in Henderson, Nevada, and available for interviews and speaking engagements, Farrell may be contacted via email. His email address is as follows:
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