ISSUES OF FAITH: Freedom of religion does not stand independently

MY COLUMN THIS month, as we approach the celebration of Independence Day, will reflect on one of our nation’s valued freedoms, “freedom of religion.”

“Freedom of religion,” like “freedom of the press,” are civil rights granted in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights to our nation’s Constitution:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press …”

So, what is “freedom of religion” in terms of the First Amendment?

First, from the government’s side, it’s the promise that the federal government shall not establish a national religion such as existed in Europe … and such as existed in the individual colonies.

(Ironically, liberal Massachusetts was the last of the original colonies in 1833 to “disestablish.”)

The colony of Maryland, founded by the Catholic Lord Baltimore in 1634, first attempted to enact a principle of religious liberty in the Maryland Toleration Act (1649), which can be read at, but it was shortly thereafter repealed through Protestant influence, along with a law that disallowed Catholics from openly practicing their religion.

This Maryland Toleration Act was passed again in 1658, then rescinded a second time in 1689, with the 1704 addition of not allowing Catholics to hold public office, and only finally restored with the coming of the American Revolution.

This quick summary of the religious toleration teeter-totter in Maryland nearly 400 years ago does not seem at all remote to us now, with recent calls to ban adherents of Islam from entering the U.S.

A second aspect of “freedom of religion” in the First Amendment is the promise by the government (which presumably it will enforce) that our nation’s citizens will be able to freely practice their religion.

And here’s where things really get tricky, for religious organizations are those social organizations, which, if they’re doing their job, are addressing one’s deepest beliefs, highest loyalties and ultimate allegiances.

Religion relates to one’s total world and life view, to one’s vision of how things should be; it cannot be cordoned off to some compartment of life.

This, then, is the challenge for a nation that would grant “freedom of religion” to its citizens: How does it manage a plurality of ultimate loyalties?

How does it keep the competing visions and truth claims of the religions from being at each other’s throat?

This means to me means that the principle of “freedom of religion” does not stand independently; the freedom is not an absolute freedom; it exists in relationship with the “freedom” of others.

This also means to me that to be part of a country with “freedom of religion” there must be a kind of “umbrella civic religion” that gets buy-in, even if grudgingly, from the various religions under its protection.

That “umbrella civic religion” has to do, first, with a principle of toleration — no stone-throwing through the windows of the mosques, temples, churches, synagogues and meeting houses where the light shines in upon the disparate faith communities.

And, secondly, as part of the practice of toleration, a quality of humility is needed, a humility that understands that: As strongly as I believe and think I am right, I’m also aware that I’m a fragment of the whole and that I view reality through the lens of that fragment.

Or, to use an analogy: In the same way we recognize that the language we speak, though it may be best for me, is not the only language nor best for everyone.

Thus, to preserve our nation’s “freedom of religion,” we must have the humility to recognize that our religion, even though it has to do with “ultimates,” remains our take on those “ultimates.”

Reflecting as we near the Fourth of July on our nation’s ongoing experiment with “freedom of religion,” I see it as never-settled, always-in-tension, always-in-jeopardy; but, certainly, an experiment for which to be grateful, and a reality and vision worth working to preserve and deepen.


Issues of Faith is a rotating column by five religious leaders on the North Olympic Peninsula. The Rev. Bruce Bode is minister emeritus of the Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Port Townsend. His email is brucea [email protected]

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