In January of 1786, James Madison steered Thomas Jefferson’s “Statute for Religious Freedom” through the Virginia Assembly.
Jefferson’s bill guaranteed religious liberty for all and stipulated that no one could be required to support a house of worship. The legislation was a significant step in the development of true religious freedom in America and served as a model for the First Amendment.
During debate, efforts were made to limit the bill’s protections to Christians only. The maneuver failed, and this pleased Jefferson.
The Sage of Monticello was living in Paris at the time, serving as U.S. minister to France. Years later, in his autobiography, Jefferson recalled how happy he was to learn from Madison that the broad protections in his bill had remained intact.
The Christians-only language, Jefferson noted, “was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, the infidel of every denomination.”
Throughout our history, there have been individuals and organizations that believed that the United States was founded to be a “Christian nation.” They have pushed this view, even though our Constitution specifically repudiates it. On a few occasions, they even proposed changing the Constitution to reflect their view.These groups are still with us today, even as our country’s religious diversity expands.
Two visions of America are in conflict here – the Religious Right’s Christian nationalism vs. an open, pluralistic society that welcomes people of all faiths and none.
America’s commitment to true religious liberty is being tested right now at the U.S. Supreme Court. Last month, the high court heard oral arguments in two cases challenging government display of the Ten Commandments.
The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) filed an interesting friend-of-the-court brief in one of those cases. Speaking on behalf of several thousand Hindus, Buddhists and Jains, the brief notes that members of these faiths do not accept the theology behind some of the commandments.
Hindu concepts of “panentheistic monotheism” – the idea of a God who assumes many manifestations in nature – and the practice of using consecrated images in worship directly conflict with some commandments.
The HAF brief makes it clear that while members of these faiths respect the Ten Commandments, they believe its display by government “implies political and social exclusion of Hindus, Jains and Buddhists alike.”
Many Americans who choose to be non-religious feel the same way. Even many Christians have objections to government-sponsored Commandments displays, arguing that the state has no business co-opting a sacred religious text for its own ends.
This incredible diversity – Christians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists and others living side by side in peace – is what our Founders intended. They had the opportunity to establish a “Christian nation” – and rejected it.
Some would have us drift from our foundations and embrace religious majoritarianism. During oral argument at the high court, Justice Antonin Scalia blithely dismissed the concerns of those who do not accept the theological code embedded in the Ten Commandments. If you don’t like seeing the Commandments in front of a courthouse, Scalia said, you are free to “turn your eyes away.”
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy agreed. “If an atheist walked by, he can avert his eyes, he can think about something else,” he said.
Such striking examples of bigotry emanating from justices sitting on the highest court in the land should send a chill down the spine of every American who values religious freedom. It is akin to the insensitive argument made against those who objected to mandatory school prayer: “If your kid doesn’t like it, he can go stand in the hall.”
Other justices seemed to be missing the point, asking if the problem would go away if disclaimer signs were put around the Commandments.
These cases are about more than a Ten Commandments monument in front of a state capitol or hanging on the wall of a courthouse. They are about the kind of America we are going to have.
Despite the claims of the Religious Right, there is no non-religious rationale for government to display the Ten Commandments in these cases. The often-heard claim that the ancient code is the basis of U.S. law was demolished in a friend-of-the-court brief filed by a group of legal scholars.
These displays have a religious purpose. At a courthouse or a seat of government they send the message: “This government has a favorite religious code, and here it is. If you accept it, good for you. If you don’t, you’re a second-class citizen.”
A triumphalist message like that would be expected in Iran or Afghanistan under the Taliban. In the United States, it runs counter to our constitutional principles and the vision of the Founding Fathers.
The Religious Right would like to use the battle over the Commandments as an opening salvo to “Christianize” this nation. For the sake of America’s traditions of inclusivity, fair courts and religious liberty, they must not succeed.