Religious Freedom

Patrick Henry
4 min readMar 11, 2018

We now have the case of the Colorado cake maker before the Supreme Court. The Supremes will, once again, attempt to define the limits of religious freedom. There is something very important going on here, and more subtle than you might think.

Religious freedom was at the heart of our founding as a nation. Many of the early European settlers made the stormy crossing to escape religious persecution. Europe waged bloody religious wars for centuries, winner take all. Of course, religion was a cloak thrown over lots of political and economic motivation. Some of the wars were simply royal ego or royal competition, but most of the combatants were convinced they were doing God’s work. Many people came to the new world to escape the conflicts and feel secure in their religious practice.

The first amendment to our founding document prohibited the establishment of a state backed religion. It did not specify the separation of church and state! That was, possibly, Jefferson’s wish. Most of the founding fathers were Christians of one kind or another, and all were professed Theists. A non-denominational Christianity was part of public life from the get go. Our currency proclaims trust in God. The houses of congress had chaplains who opened sessions with a prayer. “Under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in the 50s. All the military branches have chaplains and services are conducted on military installations. After WWII, we moved from generic Christian to Judaeo-Christian as antisemitism faded, and the Evangelicals adopted Israel. We accommodated other faiths, but, for the most part, did not make them part of the public display. We now have a new phenomenon, which might be described as “freedom from religion”, combined with a veneration for cultural diversity (something of a contradiction). I’ll try to take this further by weaving together some straws in the wind.

In the 80s I belonged to an organization that lobbied Congress and the regulators on behalf of commercial real estate. One of our dinner speakers was Ben Bradlee. He told us what a wonderful institution was the Washington Post. And he lamented the loss of circulation. Since this was prior to Al Gore’s invention of the internet, there had to be another reason for the loss. I suggested that it might be a cultural gap. According to polls, over 75% of the populace professed belief in a Supreme Being and participation in some form of organized religion. I speculated that all of the members of his newsroom and editorial staff might be in the other 25%. They might not be connecting. He vehemently agreed. He said that he had been working hard to hire a reporter who was a believer. The tenor of the conversation led me to believe that he wasn’t really looking for a reporter; he was looking for an anthropologist, who could successfully go Beyond the Pale to observe the quaint customs of the aborigines.

A few years later, I read a piece saying that our local PBS station had sold its mailing list to the Democratic party, and that such practice was common. I was incensed that an organization chartered as a vehicle for public education and uplift, and supported in large part with taxpayer dollars (this was prior to their all-out foray into ad selling), was supporting a political party.

Recently, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a confirmation hearing for an appeals court judge. The nominee is a professor at Notre Dame Law School who had a distinguished record as a legal thinker. She got a hostile cross examination from Diane Feinstein, followed by Dick Durbin asking her if she was an “orthodox Catholic”. I don’t know how many people in America are practicing Catholics, but it’s tens of millions. I assume that most of them are “orthodox”, meaning, presumably, that they subscribe to the teachings of the Church. Senator Durbin seems to be saying that none of them would be eligible to serve as an appeals court judge.

Finally, we have the New York Times. I started reading the Times as a graduate student. I regarded it as part of my education. It was the “Newspaper of Record”. The editorial page was generally a bit left of center, but almost always thoughtful. The news pages were non-partisan and VERY thorough. Over the years, a leftward drift set in, but there was still a distinction between opinion and news. Trump ended all of that (see my prior entry “Trump Hysteria”). It’s now all RESIST from page one onward. However, in the last few weeks, they found a new low. The editorial staff took over the twitter feed to encourage tweetees to call or write their Senator to demand a no vote on the tax bill. They’ve moved from endorsing candidates to grass roots lobbying.

How do I weave these straws into a basket? I think we have come full circle. We started out with a ban on an established religion. A minority pushed for the separation of church and state. In the last few decades, there has been agitation/litigation for freedom from religion. But the conclusion I draw is that we have a new established religion. Let’s call it Secular Progressive. Those who don’t subscribe to its tenets are bigots. What we are being told by those-who-know-better is that believers in God are Beyond the Pale and in need of Ben’s anthropologist.