As such, it was no accident that free exercise of one’s faith (or no faith at all) is the first listed in our nation’s Bill of Rights, preceding freedom of speech, press and assembly.
Freedom of religion was clearly understood by the drafters as fundamental to the success of the experiment in self-government they were about to propose in the Constitution.
Religious practice was also indispensable to the American idea of ordered liberty.
The 19th-century philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville observed that the presence of religion in America made a distinct difference in the nation’s particular version of democracy, “impos(ing) upon each man some obligations toward mankind,” that a society based on a secular understanding of equality could not.
He was right, and this religiously steeped understanding of freedom has motivated some of the greatest liberation movements, from abolition to civil rights, not to mention some of the most robust humanitarian efforts in modern history — all made possible because as a protected freedom, religion in America was allowed to flourish.
Secular thinkers seem to be quickly forgetting, or wittingly ignoring, religion’s profound influence on American life by insisting that its role in modern society is increasingly marginal. But such insistence does not make it so.
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat writes of “a sense — not universal but widespread — that religious pluralism has broad social benefits, and that the wider society has a practical interest, within reason, in allowing religious communities to pursue moral ends as they see fit.”
His point is an important one. Unlike any modern entitlement, religious freedom benefits everyone equally, sometimes in ways we fail to recognize or acknowledge.
And we would all be well served to rediscover its value and return it to a place of significance in American democracy.
Cynthia M. Allen is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Readers may send her email at email@example.com.
Breaking news, severe weather alerts, AMBER alerts, sports scores from The Norman Transcript are available as text messages right to your phone or mobile device. You decide which type of alerts you want to receive. Find out more or to signup, click here.