Fox News Radio host Todd Starnes is a man on a mission. For the past several years he’s been leading a crusade to prove that Christianity in America is being undermined by a secular, anti-religious agenda at the behest of the libertine big-government of President Barack Obama and his heathen minions.
Earlier this month, as a guest on Hannity, Starnes trained his sights on the U.S. armed forces, accusing the President and the Department of Defense of a “Christian cleansing” of the military. The notoriously fact-challenged pundit appeared to be referencing the DoD’s longstanding prohibition against proselytizing, which is defined as “inducing someone to convert to one’s own religious faith,” among the troops. Basically you’re not supposed to do what Maj. Douglas W. Duerksen, a military chaplain, recommends here, or what the evangelical group Cadence International describes in detail in its short documentary “Mission to the Military.” If you have any trouble understanding why this kind of behavior is off limits, imagine your eight-year-old daughter sitting through a sermon on Christ’s grace by her second-grade public school teacher, whose salary is paid for with your tax dollars.
Starnes is little more than a troll with a megaphone, which makes it tempting to dismiss his rhetoric as the rantings of one more anti-government zealot. But the notion that the freedom of American citizens to practice their faith in earnest is being stifled by the very government pledged to protect it is not limited to the radical fringe. Emboldened by the passage of Obamacare and its focus on promoting female reproductive health—and re-energized by the shifting tides on gay marriage—a handful of conservative intellectuals have added their voice to “War on Christians” meme.
Their faulty logic shares one common distinction: a misunderstanding of what the framers intended when they chose to include a mandate on religious freedom in the Bill of Rights. This error was advanced most recently in the April 2013 edition of Hillsdale College’s Imprimis newsletter, in a cover story penned by Yale-trained theologian R.R. Reno. In it, Reno, who edits the journal “First Things,” which covers religion in civic life, blames the demise of religious dogma in the public sphere on the efforts of a handful of highly placed secularists intent on reshaping civic discourse to favor Rawlsian “public reason” over faith-based morality.
To illustrate the process Reno alludes to the case of Bob Jones University, which had its tax exempt status revoked by the IRS in 1976 for its policy of prohibiting interracial dating and barring the admission of black applicants married to white spouses. Eight years later the case went before the Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the IRS on the grounds that “government has a fundamental, overriding interest in eradicating racial discrimination in education.” To Reno, the ruling was a progenitor of the kind of secularist agenda that is chipping away at the rights of religious institutions to flout established U.S. laws.
Indeed, America has a long tradition of religion trumping secular law: Some southwest Indians are allowed to use peyote for religious purposes (a treat denied the rest of us) and Jewish Mohels are given wide latitude to practice their craft with minimal regulatory oversight. Under the “ministerial exemption,” church groups are entitled to apply selective hiring practices for choosing religious leaders that would otherwise violate anti-discrimination laws. And Reno himself references the dress code at his son’s school, which makes an exception to its “no hat” policy for Jewish students who wish to wear yarmulkes.
But to argue that an institution deserves an exemption from federal taxes when it refuses to follow federal law ignores the distinction between freedom of religion and freedom from religion. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution contains two very different pronouncements on religion in the public sphere; the first of these, the Establishment Clause, has nothing to do with freedom of religion; it promises citizens that they will be free from the uninvited burden of religious dogma on their public lives (i.e. who you should be allowed to date). This is followed by the Free Exercise Clause, which gives citizens the right to practice their spirituality as they see fit. One deals with the right to wear a yarmulkes to school, the other makes it illegal to force others to.
It should not be chalked up to mere coincidence that freedom to practice religion is provided for after the right to live your life without having religion heaved upon you has already been established. The framers were famously skeptical of dogmatic religion and above all sought to promote tolerance and the rule of law independent of any religious understanding of those two things.
There are actually few if any real restrictions on practicing ones faith in America, regardless of what that faith is. Under U.S. law people of faith have free reign to express their beliefs in all manner of public life. You can think Christian, act Christian, vote Christian, send your kids to Christian schools—hell you can even stand on a street corner and testify to the power of Christ. What you can’t do is impose that dogma on others who don’t wish to have it imposed on them. That means that if you engage in public commerce with the rest of us (adoption, medical care, education, selling hamburgers) you have to operate by the laws we have agreed should govern that commerce. If I come into church, I promise to abide by yours.
I don’t doubt that it is uncomfortable to be an individual who sees the world through the eyes of dogma living in a country that bases its governance on reason, equality and community. Life is full of minor discomforts; but where the religious faithful are concerned, those discomforts are really pretty small in America. In France you are prohibited from wearing a crucifix to work; in Egypt you face potential mob violence for doing so. Last year a district court in Germany attempted (unsuccessfully) to outlaw circumcision. Given the fact that more than 80 percent of Americans are Christian and most of them are perfectly content with their ability to worship as they see fit, it’s hard to see the claims of a war on religion as anything more than a knee-jerk reaction by a small and intolerant group that, if it had its way, would gladly rewrite the Constitution to remove the Establishment Clause.