Obama’s “Right to Worship” Ushers in New State Religion

The constitutions or laws of many nations provide for what is called “religious liberty.” In practice, this liberty is under severe restrictions in numerous countries, if it exists at all. The fact is that no one can really talk about religious freedom without examining what the “religion” holds. Grace builds on nature but does not contradict it. No religion, without further discussion, can simply believe anything at all. Some minimum criterion of order and right is presupposed to this freedom to follow religion’s teachings or one’s conscience. Concern about “fanaticism” is legitimate, even when such fanaticism is rooted in some religion’s basic explanation of itself.  Yet not everything religion holds is ipso facto “fanatic,” despite what many state ideologues want to maintain.

Much of the controversy today is not precisely about religious freedom but is instead over matters of fact and truth. Abortion, homosexuality, genetic experimentation, and euthanasia are not primarily “religious” issues but rational ones. On these life issues, not a few religions have come to embrace what are, in effect, irrational “rights” that contradict reason. Therefore, “religious freedom” is really, at bottom, a philosophical and political issue because it pertains to what a reasonable politics can rightly allow.

Though religious freedom, in its American form, was almost unique in the world when it was first established at the nation’s founding, this liberty had been almost taken for granted in this country until recently. Now its erosion is suddenly well-advanced. Its very meaning is in doubt. The belated realization of this change in understanding of religious liberty has alerted some few, perhaps too few, to the seriousness of the issue. Indeed, the change extends beyond American borders since our government often seeks to require its new understanding of religious liberty on others as a requirement of any aid or help.

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Religious liberty is still, however, the reason why many believers leave their country of origin in search of another where their beliefs are welcome. This emigration today is especially from Muslim countries, where “religious liberty” means, basically, that everyone should be Muslim, or if not, agree to second-class citizenship. Any valid theory of religious liberty would allow major religions to hold that its position is true, provided it was not imposed by force or coerced in some other way.

Every January 16 since 1996, the American president has issued a proclamation setting aside that day as Religious Freedom Day. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom keeps extensive files on religious freedom in most countries. While most declarations retain the phrase “religious freedom,” it has been noted that around 2010, the phrase, “freedom of worship,” rather than “freedom of religion” sometimes appeared. If we understand “freedom of religion” to mean “freedom of worship,” does it make any difference? Small errors in the beginning lead to huge errors in the end, as Aristotle long ago remarked. Freedom of worship, at least in idea, seems to be designed to distinguish or separate religious freedom from freedom to worship. Even when the term “freedom of religion” is used, many of the actions of the current U.S. government, such as those forcing religious believers to support government programs contrary to their faith, indicate that “freedom of worship” is meant.

The distinction thus conveniently backs up the Obama administration’s moves to place all health, education, and charitable organizations under the umbrella of state control. Consequently, I am “free” to believe or say what I want within the walls of a church or place of worship. This view implicitly takes all religious people out of the public realm if their religious or philosophical view is contrary to that of the state. This position is the modern version of the political views developed by Marsilius of Padua and Thomas Hobbes. Religion must be solely internal with no public effects. The state controls all external actions. This exercise of control is what the change in wording was designed to accomplish.

How does the president understand “religious liberty”? In his 2013 Proclamation for Religious Freedom Day, he wrote: “Foremost among the rights Americans hold sacred is the freedom to worship as we choose.” He then refers to the history of this right. “Because of this protection by our Constitution, each of us has the right to practice out faith openly and as we choose.” In the 2014 Proclamation, the phrase “freedom of worship” does not occur, only “religious freedom.” The source of this freedom is explained in this manner:

Today America embraces people of all faiths and of no faith. We are Christians and Jews Muslims and Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs, atheists and agnostics. Our religious diversity enriches our cultural fabric and reminds us that what bind us as one are not the tenets of our faiths, the colors of our skins, or the origins of our names. What binds us Americans is our adherence to shared ideals—freedom, equality, justice, and our right as a people to set our own course.

It is this understanding of religious freedom that the country wants to promote at home and abroad.

Religious freedom thus really has nothing to do with God. It has to do with “ideals.” Just where these ideals come from or why they are binding is not clear. Evidently, unlike in the real world, these ideals do not conflict with one another, nor do members of religions or no religions. Each religion and philosophy is presumed to have purged itself of anything important enough to cause a conflict. Since religious conflict is seen to be a major cause of war and disorder, the state will not allow any differences to be manifest outside the place of worship.

The real public “religion” becomes the religion of state that decrees this happy world in which everyone gets along. These principles are valid for all men, not just America. The “tenets” of faith, our race, and national origin mean little. On this theological or philosophical basis, the state allows us to believe or practice what we want. It is the state alone that controls the public order. It does not care about any ideas or religions so long as they never question the principles that motivate the state itself.

American Elites Abandon Jeffersonian Ideal of Religious Liberty
January 16 was chosen as the date of Religious Freedom Day because it was on this day in 1786 that the General Assembly of the State of Virginia passed Jefferson’s famous “Act for Establishing Religious Freedom.” This memorable Act has long been considered to contain universal principles valid for more than Virginia. It was the main influence for the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which stated that Congress could not establish a religion or prohibit the free exercise thereof. The subsequent legislative and juridical history of religious freedom has almost brought it about that we have, instead of religious freedom, established a secular state as, paradoxically, the official “religion” of the state. President Obama is but a recent spokesman of this new “political religion” that little tolerates any view of freedom contrary to its own. Ironically, the state itself violates the separation of church and state by becoming in effect its own religion.

As even President Obama states, we were founded by Christians seeking to escape religious intolerance. We now, however, live in a nation in which Christians, who maintain its basic truth and morality with philosophic reasons, must consider changing their principles or leaving their states, as Governor Cuomo in New York, himself a professed Catholic, has maintained, if they insist on believing and practicing their religion. The larger issue of coerced participation in the HHS mandate to support abortion and contraception funding only makes it clear that religious liberty is no longer allowed in the land, only “freedom to worship” in private.

In this light, it is of interest to read the Virginia Act. Jefferson began by stating that “the Almighty” has “created the mind free.” This statement is not exactly true. The Almighty, to be sure, created rational beings each with a mind, will, and body. The mind is not “free” to state whatever it wants. It is directly oriented to what is. When a human being comes to act on what he knows or state what he sees, then he is free. That is, he is not determined. He can even lie and state falsely what he sees. This freedom of will—what Jefferson really meant—gives him many options. He did not mean that both sides of a contradiction were equally true.

Jefferson next made a practical point. If we attempt to force belief by “temporal punishments, burdens, or civil incapacities,” we just cause people to be “mean” and “hypocrites.” What is wrong with this? Well, “it is not the plan of the Holy Author of our religion.” So we do have a religion. It has an Author. Do we today still “hold” this truth? And is Jefferson’s reasoning now to be considered fallacious because he referred to a “Holy Author” and to “our religion?” Can we really have a religion without a “Holy Author?” What would be its object or purpose?

What Jefferson seemed most concerned about was “imposing” beliefs and opinions by a civil or ecclesiastical power. He even thought that “false” religions existed over “the greatest part of the world and through all time.” But he seems concerned about them not because they are “false” but because they might be coerced. Also he rejects the compelling of money to support these doings.  All should be able to give their money to “pastors” with whom they feel “most comfortable.” Jefferson likes those pastors who have good morals and who “labor for the instruction of mankind.” “Civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinion”—like geometry and mathematics. The civil order itself sees the political and philosophical need of religious freedom on its own (civil) terms.

Jefferson held, with some naiveté, that “truth is great and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human disposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is freely permitted to contradict them.” Free argument, persuasion, and debate are no doubt the correct context to deal with fundamental differences. But Madison was no doubt wise in Federalist 51 when he warned that we have no government of angels and must constantly take steps to check the government itself. The New Testament itself warned that, in following Christ’s teachings, his disciples would be dragged before governors and courts. There is little evidence that truth by itself will always prevail in political societies.

Yves Simon, in his General Theory of Authority, brought up this very question of whether speculative truth by itself is able to prevail in such a hostile environment. Simon wrote: “Whoever believes in philosophic truth knows that philosophy is a domain where the order of truth will not come into existence spontaneously.” It often takes more than argument to protect what is good and true. The individual does need society to assist him in knowing the truth, but another society can lead the same people away from the truth. Simon added:

Temporal (political) society cannot shirk concern with the thoughts of men, even on the deepest levels, and still discharge its more obvious duties—say, protecting innocent life, giving property a guaranty against evildoers, and assuring some sort of dignity in marriage—and those relative to the immanence of what is now essential in common life, in other words, to the fact that the principal part of our common good is contained within our souls. (126).

Ultimately, the good of human actions and institutions is directly related to the truths that men accept or reject in their souls. Jefferson’s optimism never works out in practice. We now see that it is the state itself that is the major threat to philosophy and religious freedom.

The Modern State as Quasi-Established Religion
In this light, then, let us take another look at Jefferson’s own instructions. If we look carefully at his proposal, we can see its inadequacy particularly when it comes to polities that themselves have become in effect religious or ideological claimants to decide what religion or philosophy really mean. The Act of the Virginia General Assembly concluded:

Be it therefore enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

In Jefferson’s reading, the state is to prevent enforced religious thought. A man cannot be deprived of job or goods because of his beliefs. All shall be free to profess and argue their position and such argument shall not cause him civil disabilities.

But if it is the state itself that insists its legislated or juridical doctrines are the ruling force, it can and does cause both restrictions on the public expression and cause legal and financial burdens on people who disagree with it. Religion is forced to support the “religious/ideological” laws of the state that now defines what is to be tolerated. To disagree with the state causes financial loss and requires approval of what people hold to be wrong. The difference between Jefferson’s hypothesis and the situation today is, at bottom, that the modern state is not just a “temporal order” but itself a quasi-established religion that enforces what it will or will not allow in ultimate questions about human life and death.

How did Jefferson think of the “authority” of this Act? Could not another legislature change it?

And though we well know that this Assembly, elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no powers equal to our own and that therefore to declare this act irrevocable would be of no effect in law, yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such an act will be an infringement of natural right.

Since a legislature is bound by a constitution, even if it tried to restrict religious freedom by law, it would not be valid. But Jefferson recognized a law higher than even a constitution, which the Assembly recognized, but did not create. In this higher law, the unchangeable properties belonging to a human being as such are recognized. They belong to all mankind.

So the understanding of religious freedom today means more than mere government protection of religion. Now it means that citizens are protected from legal restrictions on the latest so-called “rights,” following Hobbes—thus, “rights” to abortion, euthanasia, homosexual marriage, fetal experimentation, and other life issues that in practice undermine human dignity.

For the tradition of Hobbes, “rights,” including religion, were under the control of the state to give whatever content it chose. It is this understanding of “rights” that currently forms the core of a new civil religion that is being imposed on society against any real freedom of philosophy and religion. Religious freedom becomes “freedom to worship,” in order that religion may have no effect external to what goes on in houses of worship or in the inner souls of mankind.


  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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