By Tony Perkins
No document was more instrumental in America’s founding than the Declaration of Independence. But if there was a close second, Thomas Jefferson wrote it too: the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom. If you asked Jefferson, he would say it was one of his proudest achievements.
That might surprise Americans today, who wrongly believe that our third President wanted to divorce the government of all religious expression. On the contrary, what Jefferson wrote in Fredericksburg some 230 years ago was such a groundbreaking defense of freedom that the men who drafted our Constitution relied on it for the framework of the First Amendment.
“No nation,” the third President said years later, “has ever existed or been governed without religion. Nor can be.” Thomas Jefferson understood then, as we do now, that religious freedom is fundamental to every other freedom on earth. Maybe that’s why, despite all of his other accomplishments, Jefferson considered the statute one of his greatest triumphs.
Much about America has changed since those early days, but religious liberty is still as hotly debated today as it was when the pilgrims fled English rule. The same government interference the first Americans experienced is rising again, undermining the very faith that has for centuries sustained and strengthened. The government, once the guardian of liberty, is now the aggressor against liberty. It tramples our consciences with health care mandates, silences our chaplains with radical marriage policy, and expels our pastors from public ceremonies. In six years, we have become a people afraid to pray, teach, practice medicine, or even manage a business without fear of reprisal from Big Brother.
Jefferson’s “wall of separation,” which we fiercely support, has been breached — not by Christians or churches, but by the State. Political correctness has become this country’s god, trampling the one freedom on which all others rest: religious liberty. As a result, we see more and more religious intolerance disguised as pluralism.
Case in point: Duke University. While Christianity continues to be expelled from college campuses, the void is being filled by a false sense of diversity. And ironically, that “diversity” is giving rise to the same preferential treatment to non-Christians that liberals have accused us of enjoying. This month, the university announced that it would start sounding the call to Muslim prayer from Duke’s bell tower on the Friday of every week as an exercise in “unity.”
That exercise failed miserably, as Americans everywhere spoke out against the favored status Islam was receiving in the aftermath of some of the greatest terror attacks of the last few years. While Boko Haram’s victims litter the streets of Nigeria and France is picking up the pieces of a dozen shattered families, the elevation of Islam certainly seemed unwise. But as foolish as the timing was, the real debate isn’t about Duke’s right to sound a Muslim prayer call from its tower. The debate is about whether Islam as a religion contributes to the ordered liberty in our society. Just as Duke has the freedom to “accommodate” the school’s Muslims, we have a right to express our concerns about embracing a religion that has radicalized men and women to war against the West and other faiths.
As we’ve said before, society has a compelling interest in supporting any religious practice that’s compatible with our constitutional republic. Should we try to prohibit Americans’ free exercise of Islam? Absolutely not. But that doesn’t mean that we have to engage in it or agree with it, as Duke’s patrons clearly didn’t. True pluralism is not elbowing out America’s tradition of Christianity to make room for minority faiths. It’s affording everyone the same right to live and work in accordance to their beliefs — a right sorely missing for all too many Christians today.
Tony Perkins is president of the Washington, D.C.-based Family Research Council. He is a former member of the Louisiana legislature where he served for eight years, and he is recognized as a legislative pioneer for authoring measures like the nation’s first Covenant Marriage law.
(Via FRC’s Washington Update. Tony Perkins’ Washington Update is written with the aid of FRC senior writers.)
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