The genius of the American religious culture is that we have created a society in which a huge variety of religious institutions can live together, without anyone having to believe that they are all equally true.
European religion gave us established churches and dissenting sects, each of which thought it was the one true embodiment of the faith. In America, though, all these One True Churches were thrown together. None could become legally established everywhere, nor could any dominate the whole culture. Europeans invented the original terms of the sociology of religion out of their experience, especially when Ernst Troeltsch turned the Christian words “church” and “sect” into universal concepts. American sociology added another crucial term, based on our experience: denomination. In this culture, each church and each sect was obliged to become just another denomination – none of them culturally dominant, none of them the One True way of the faith. Instead, each was obliged to recognize the other as a legitimate expression of the faith, differing in the way they are named (“de-nominated”).
The idea of the denomination turned the fact of religious diversity in America into the idea and ideal of religious pluralism. Eventually the law caught up with the culture. The most important pillar of that law is in the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution. As with many products of the legislative sausage factory, the first amendment is a curious compromise. It does not say, as James Madison initially proposed, “No State shall violate the equal rights of conscience.” Instead, our first amendment says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The first part, the establishment clause, reads in this peculiar way because the individual states could and did make laws establishing religion – official, tax-supported denominations – for some time after the U.S. Constitution was ratified. The second part, the free exercise clause, actually strengthens Madison’s idea. The free exercise of religion protects actions, as well as conscientious thoughts.
We did not create a society free from religion. We created as society safe for every religious thought, and just about every religious action. We created a society safe for sectarianism.
Kevin Seamus Hasson, head of the Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, makes a similar point in his fine new book, The Right to Be Wrong. The Beckett Fund defends all kinds of religious practices from governmental restriction. They don’t do this because they are relativists, thinking all religions are equally right, but because they think American religious pluralism protects the right of every denomination -- theirs, yours, and mine – to be wrong.
Hasson, a Notre Dame-trained lawyer, argues that freedom of conscience is a natural right. He believes that it is human nature to seek the truth about why we exist and what we are supposed to do about it. And our free consciences require us to not only seek, but find, to commit to what we believe to be true. Beyond finding, we must also act on what we believe. The American right to be wrong protects our search, and our commitments, and only limits our conscientious actions in extraordinary circumstances that threaten public welfare or the free consciences of others. Our public sphere is to be governed neither by what he calls Pilgrims, who only allow their own faith, or Park Rangers, who don’t allow any.
I agree with Seamus Hasson. I think that human nature does seek to know the meaning of our existence, and that our conscience prods us to act on what we believe to be our vocation and duty. I do part company with him on one point. He allows that Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island and the cranky pioneer of religious liberty in America, argued for a God-given right to freedom of conscience, too. Hasson thinks Williams’ solution is inadequate for us today, though, because it only convinces those who believe in God. Yet I don’t see how Hasson’s argument for a human nature-given right to freedom of conscience is any different – it only convinces people who believe in natural rights. I think that Roger Williams and Seamus Hasson are both right, because I think God created the nature, both human and otherwise, from which our conscience comes.
American religious freedom rests on a conviction that allowing everyone freedom of conscience is right. This conviction cannot be proven to be true. But we have good reason to believe that it is true from our religion, our philosophy, and our experience.