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Taking Liberties: Why Religious Freedom Doesn't Give You the Right to Tell Other People What to Do

Taking Liberties: Why Religious Freedom Doesn't Give You the Right to Tell Other People What to Do

by Robert Boston


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A concise and lucid explanation of what religious freedom is and isn't. Increasingly, conservative religious groups are using religious liberty as a sword to lash out at others. In this forcefully argued defense of the separation of church and state, Robert Boston makes it clear that the religious freedom guaranteed in the First Amendment is an individual right, the right of personal conscience, not a license allowing religious organizations to discriminate against and control others. The book examines the controversy over birth control, same-sex marriage, religion in public schools, the intersection of faith and politics, and the "war on Christmas," among other topics. Boston concludes with a series of recommendations for resolving clashes between religious liberty claims and individual rights.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781616149116
Publisher: Prometheus Books
Publication date: 03/04/2014
Pages: 198
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Robert Boston is the director of communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the editor of Church & State magazine. He is the author of Why the Religious Right Is Wrong about Separation of Church and State, Close Encounters with the Religious Right, and The Most Dangerous Man in America? Pat Robertson and the Rise of the Christian Coalition. He is also a frequent contributor to The Humanist, and his articles have appeared in Free Inquiry, The Skeptical Inquirer, Conscience, and other publications.

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Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2014 Robert Boston
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61614-912-3



A lot of countries don't have religious freedom. In many nations, the government presumes to tell people what to believe and how to behave when it comes to religion. Saudi Arabia, where faiths outside Wahhabi Islam are illegal, is an extreme example.

But even some generally tolerant Western nations regulate (or attempt to regulate) the religious behaviors of their citizens. The practice of Scientology is illegal in Germany, and some states there still attempt to place restrictions on the faith of Jehovah's Witnesses.

The United States took a different path. Why?

The short answer is that we have religious freedom in America because there was a time when we didn't, and we learned from that. This period of restrictions on religious liberty was not an abstraction to key founders. They lived through it; they observed it firsthand. Having seen the results of colonies where there was no meaningful religious freedom, they sought to protect its practice.

I have discussed the history of this period in one of my previous books, Why the Religious Right Is Wrong about Separation of Church and State. It's not my intention to revisit all of that again here, but it is important to take a quick look at the development of religious freedom in the United States. As is often the case, a glance backward tells us how we got to where we are.

This is important because the use (or misuse) of history is fundamental to the strategy of those who would redefine religious freedom. They have constructed a narrative—one that does not necessarily jibe with the facts—to buttress this redefinition.

One of the things they have sought to do is decouple religious freedom from the concept of the separation of church and state. These two concepts—religious liberty and church-state separation—have been portrayed as enemies and have been made to fight. The implication here is that the American people will have to choose: Do they want separation or religious liberty? We are told that our nation can't have both.

Actually, we can. In fact, we have. Indeed, we must. Religious freedom is not the enemy of separation of church and state. These two concepts are partners. More than that, they're like mutualistic organisms. They need one another to survive. The founders knew this; that's why the First Amendment says what it does.

Prior to the founders, early religious-liberty pioneers also understood this. Roger Williams, an iconoclastic minister and the founder of Rhode Island, challenged the Puritan establishment of Massachusetts with a bold demand for "soul liberty." Williams maintained that the state had no business dictating orthodoxy to anyone. His preferred method of making certain that the government did not do this was the separation of church and state.

Williams's separation was not merely the end of established churches, although he certainly favored that. He insisted that the government had no right to compel anyone to recite a religious oath, and he blasted attempts by the state to define which religions were pleasing to God. Such attempts inevitably led to persecution, Williams maintained. And compulsory religion, he argued, "stinks in the nostrils of God."

Williams's ideas were heretical at the time. Indeed, Massachusetts's ruling Puritans found him tiresome and had plans to forcibly ship him back to England. Williams escaped and fled into the wilderness. He purchased (rather than simply seized) land from the natives and founded his own colony—Providence.

Meaningful religious liberty, Williams believed, encompasses the right to be wrong from someone else's perspective. And this wasn't just talk on his part; Williams put it into practice. Williams was not fond of Quakers and found their theology strange. Yet Quakers worshipped unmolested in Providence. If Quakers were wrong, Williams believed, God would have an opportunity to explain that to them at some point. It was not the magistrate's job.

In a famous metaphor, Williams spoke of a "wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world." The phrase is interesting because it anticipates something Thomas Jefferson said many years later—although there is no evidence that Jefferson knew of it.

We get the impression here that Williams is advocating for the purity of the church in the face of state encroachments. Randall Balmer, a highly respected scholar of American religion, has pointed out that the word wilderness had great meaning for the men and women of Williams's day. It's likely Williams chose it with great care.

Balmer notes that the Puritans viewed the wilderness as a frightening place, untamed and full of dangers. To mix the church with the wilderness, then, was a great threat to the church. Williams's separation was in no way designed to lessen the power or purity of belief. In fact, this wall was a protector, not a destroyer.

As European settlements grew along the East Coast, colonies adopted various rules relating to religious freedom. Some had established churches, while others were more liberal in their attitude.

In those colonies with official state churches, dissenting clergy members were the first to raise the argument for separation of church and state. A distance between the two institutions, they argued, was the only way to ensure freedom of belief for all.

Some pastors framed their argument in explicitly theological terms. Official establishments, they argued, served the interests of neither church nor state.

Isaac Backus, a colonial-era Baptist preacher in New England, argued the former, asserting, "Religious matters are to be separated from the jurisdiction of the state, not because they are beneath the interests of the state but, quite to the contrary, because they are too high and holy and thus are beyond the competence of the state."

John Leland, an especially fiery Baptist cleric, worked his entire life to end established churches and any government interference in soul liberty. Leland argued that mere toleration was not enough. The government had to get out of the religion business entirely.

"The liberty I contend for is more than toleration," Leland wrote in 1820. "The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence; whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks [Muslims], Pagans and Christians. Test oaths and established creeds should be avoided as the worst of evils."

Leland holds an unusual distinction in American political history: he helped end state-established churches in three states. He is perhaps best known for providing a theological voice to the efforts of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to free Virginia from the Anglican establishment. Less well-known are his efforts in his home state of Massachusetts. The Bay State was the last to surrender its established church, finally cutting it loose in 1833. Leland, who died in 1841, helped lead the charge for disestablishment. While doing that, he found time to make cross border raids into Connecticut, where he assisted pro-disestablishment forces there.

Although Leland's theology was conservative, he had no problem embracing Jefferson, whose religious views were notoriously unorthodox. Leland was influenced by Jefferson, who combined elements of Deism and European Enlightenment with a Christianity stripped of miracles and mysticism, thus creating his own idiosyncratic brew. In 1791, Leland called for the right of "every man to speak freely without fear—maintain the principles that he believes—worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods." Ten years earlier, in his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson observed something similar, "It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

Jefferson and Leland didn't agree on theology. But they remained close and worked together to promote the separation of church and state because both understood that true freedom could not exist when the government imposed religion on its citizens.

Remember, religious persecution was not an abstraction to people like Jefferson and Leland. They saw it. They lived it. Jefferson's partner and protégé, James Madison, became a powerful advocate for church-state separation after seeing "well-meaning men" in jail because they dared to preach their Baptist doctrines on the street. Madison was especially incensed that so many members of the established clergy in Virginia backed this type of persecution.

Religious freedom, then, to many people of the founding period, chiefly meant the right to worship as one saw fit. Despite the actions of people like Jefferson, Madison, and their allies in the dissenting clergy, it was by no means clear that this right would be secure everywhere. It had to be fought for in some states. In Virginia, Jefferson and Madison worked together to end the established Anglican church and pass a law giving all residents the right to worship as they saw fit.

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, drafted by Jefferson, was a pioneering piece of legislation when it was enacted in 1786. Many historians believe it influenced Madison so strongly that he took its values with him when he played a key role in authoring the First Amendment.

But, for the time being, it remained only a Virginia law. The level of religious liberty in other states varied. The situation was so unsettled that members of minority groups felt uncertain about their status.

In 1790, the leadership of Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, wrote to President George Washington to express its concerns over the rights of Jews in the new nation. The leaders noted that they had been "Deprived as we heretofore have been of the invaluable rights of free Citizens," and they expressed their desire for a nation free from bigotry and persecution.

Washington's eloquent reply is a classic of religious liberty. He assured the synagogue's leaders of their rightful place in America, writing, "The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support."

Powerful words. But at the time Washington penned them, they were not backed by anything official. The Bill of Rights, with its First Amendment guarantee of religious freedom, had yet to be added to the Constitution. In some states, Jews did face persecution. Indeed, some states even barred them from holding public office. And in the states that retained established churches, Jews, along with everyone else, had to support these official religious institutions even though they did not belong to those churches or even believe in their doctrines.

Much of this history is disputed by the religious Right. It's disputed in much the same way that some people dispute the theory of evolution. Through a selective culling of history, backed by a campaign of distortions and outright lies, they have created an alternate "history."

But it's not history, just as "creation science" isn't science. I'm old-fashioned enough to believe that if something didn't actually happen, it doesn't qualify as history. It's something else: it's a myth, a legend, a comforting (for some) story, even. Not history. History is the stuff that actually happened, not the stuff you wish had happened.

The "Christian nation" didn't happen. If it had, we would see evidence of it. First and foremost, we would see it in our Constitution. It is not there. That document contains no references in the body of the text to Christianity, Jesus Christ, or God, for that matter.

There are just two references to religion in the Constitution. One is in the First Amendment, which we've already touched on. The other is found at the end of Article VI, which states that there shall be "no religious test" for public office. This is an odd provision to put into a constitution of a Christian nation, is it not? Language that guarantees everyone—Christian and non-Christian—the right to hold federal office hardly establishes a Christian nation. It rather cuts the other way.

Furthermore, ultraconservative Protestant groups in the wake of the Civil War tried repeatedly to add a Christian-nation amendment to the Constitution. Why would they have wanted to do that if the Constitution already acknowledged Christianity?

The answer is because the Constitution didn't do that, and the extremely conservative ministers of that time, a kind of prototypical religious Right, knew that. They considered it a flaw, and they wanted to see it corrected.

Interestingly, the Christian-nation concept first took off during the Civil War, when minsters in the North, distraught over the Union Army's early losses, began asserting that the battlefield reverses were God's punishment on the nation for spurning him in the Constitution.

Later, as the North turned the tide and it became obvious that the South was going to lose, these same ministers changed their tune and began claiming that God favored the North because it was more spiritually upright than the South. Their argument suddenly shifted, and they began asserting that the framers of the Constitution had meant to add recognition of Christianity to the Constitution but had failed for some unknown reason, so it was up to these ministers to complete that task. Amazingly, they argued with a straight face that our secular Constitution somehow perpetuated a Christian order anyway and that adding a Christian-nation amendment would merely codify this.

In the modern era, an entire cottage industry has sprung up in religious Right circles, offering this phony history to fundamentalist throngs. I call it "historical creationism," and, indeed, the parallels between ersatz history and junk science draped in clerical vestments are startling.

Neither stands up to examination well. Real scientists have debunked creationism (including its younger, hipper cousin, "intelligent design") more times than I care to count. Similarly, actual historians and other scholars have let loose on the Christian-nation canard so many times that it should have ended up in the trash heap a long time ago. It survives because its main support system is the will to believe, not real research.

David Barton, a Texas man who is not a historian, has for many years made a living peddling the Christian-nation myth to eager audiences. His main claims are that Thomas Jefferson and other founders didn't really support church-state separation and that the United States was founded to be an officially Christian nation.

In 2012, Barton's carefully constructed cardboard village of phony history came crashing down when a number of Christian scholars, led by Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, finally decided they'd had enough and dissected his tall tales bit by bit.

Others had done it before Throckmorton and Coulter (a researcher named Chris Rodda has been especially active), but the Throckmorton/Coulter broadside, which, among other things, debunked Barton's fallacious claims about Jefferson's personal religious views, stung Barton especially hard because these guys were hardly flaming liberals. Until then, Barton's typical response to his critics had been exactly that: it's all political.

Maybe it's not all political. Maybe it really is about history. Maybe it's something as simple as being offended by bad history or something that's not really history after all.

Obviously, history is open to interpretation. Scholars look at events from the past, marshal evidence, and present conclusions. If you want to upset the conventional wisdom concerning a historical incident, by all means, have at it. But you must present some evidence; you must make the case.

You must also understand that history is a record of things that happened. As I've pointed out, events that never happened are not history. Barton argues that the United States was deliberately founded to be a Christian nation, but that never happened. What he promotes is not history; it is something else.

As of this writing, Barton continues to hang on. A book he wrote purporting to debunk lies about Jefferson was so full of errors that the publisher took the rare step of withdrawing it from circulation. (A flavor for this book can perhaps be gained by its main argument: Jefferson, the man who rejected the divinity of Jesus, the miracles of the New Testament, and the resurrection, was really an evangelical Christian. It got worse from there.)

The Christian-nation crowd is famous for taking a kernel of truth and turning it into an entire bag of buttery popcorn. One thing they point out is that the First Amendment didn't apply to states when it was adopted.


Excerpted from TAKING LIBERTIES by ROBERT BOSTON. Copyright © 2014 Robert Boston. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments 9

Introduction 13

Chapter 1 History 25

Chapter 2 Religion 43

Chapter 3 Sex 61

Chapter 4 Education 83

Chapter 5 Politics 105

Chapter 6 Culture 129

Chapter 7 Persecution 153

Conclusion: Run Your Own Life, Not Mine 171

Notes 183

Select Bibliography 191

Index 193

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