If you have been observing the debate regarding the so-called “religious liberty” bills popping up in state after state – Kansas, Arizona, Georgia, and elsewhere, you will be aware that these bills have nothing to do with religious liberty and everything to do with oppression of minorities.
These bills are designed to give conservative Christians the right to essentially establish their religion as a state religion. In other words, even though their religion is not officially the state religion, they can effectively function as though it is by denying goods and services (just for starters) to those they do not approve of. But they are a slippery slope, and Janet Brewer was right to say that SB 1062 “could divide Arizona in ways we cannot even imagine” and that it “could result in unintended and negative consequences.”
Let’s face it: these religious liberty bills are designed to generate negative consequences. That’s why they are written in the first place. According to the U.S. Constitution, we are all equal before the law. These religious liberty bills are intended to undermine those Constitutional protections in the guise of religious freedom. As Adalia Woodbury wrote here last night, “S.B. 1062 is a slippery slope of hate, badly disguised as ‘religious freedom’ of the Taliban variety.”
It has become a core principle of the Religious Right that the First Amendment, which bans the establishment of religion, actually establishes Christianity as the state religion. Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association has made this claim and an Arizona Tea Party group has repeated it on their website. The Williams Tea Party of Coconino County says:
The First Amendment was meant only to protect the Christian faith. When the founders spoke of religion, they meant the Christian religion. They did not have to keep saying the Christian religion because everyone knew that is what they were talking about.
This claim is easily tested, but let’s look first at a related and equally absurd claim, this one by Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX).
Rep. Gohmert wants us to believe that the recently vetoed Arizona SB 1062 was not only constitutional, but that it would uphold constitutional principles. Gohmert told Janet Mefferd yesterday that,
These are religious beliefs and how have we gotten so far afield from the Constitution that we say, well if you’re not willing to embrace the liberal beliefs that we have then your religious beliefs are not protected. It doesn’t say that in the First Amendment, it avoids the establishment of a religion. Well some are establishing the religion of secularism and everybody else’s religion has just got to basically go to blazes.
For Gohmert, secularism is religion, but by its very definition, secularism is NOT religion. It cannot be. Certainly there is argument today over the meaning of “religion” as a definition just as there is over any definition, but what matters is how those who wrote the Constitution defined religion.
Let us appeal to the Dictionary of the English Language, by Samuel Johnson (1768, 3rd edition):
Religion. 1. Virtue, as founded upon reverence of God, and expectation of future rewards and punishments. 2. A system of divine faith and worship as opposite to others.
This definition is repeated in the 1792 edition. The Constitution, of course, dates from 1787.
Interestingly, this definition does not say that by religion what is meant is Christianity, which refutes the Coconino Tea Party group. This Tea Party group might also wish to consider the actions of President James Madison, who, in vetoing a bill establishing a church in the District of Columbia, wrote that the bill “exceeds the rightful authority to which governments are limited by the essential distinction between civil and religious functions, and violates in particular the article of the Constitution of the United States which declares that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting a religious establishment.'”
For the sake of thoroughness, let us look at the definition of “secular” in the same dictionary:
Secular. 1. Not spiritual; relating to affairs of the present world; not holy; worldly. 2. [In the church of Rome.] Not bound by monastic rules.
In that dictionary, to “secularize” something is to “make [it] worldly.”
Secularism then it not religion, but the absence of religion. It is the absence from the Constitution of religious law. The Constitution is a secular document. It is not, and has never been, a religious document. All the claims in the world that the Constitution is founded on biblical principles will not change that, because there is not a biblical principle to be found in the Constitution. David Barton can look all day and all night for a year and he will not find one.
In any case, even if secularism were religion – and it clearly was not to the framers of the Constitution – it is difficult to see how passing laws that force everybody to obey Christian rules and suffer punishment if they do not, protects religious freedom, let alone promotes Arizona State Senator Al Melvin’s “maximum religious freedom.”
Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen’s Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation www.mosmaiorum.org, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.