Happy Constitution Day, Sheila!: Enjoy Your Religious Freedom – But Defend It

“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.” --Justice Robert Jackson

Back in the 1980s, sociologist Robert Bellah noted a trend among religious believers. Many were observing some of the tenets of their chosen faiths but rejecting doctrines and practices they didn’t agree with or didn’t find useful.

In his book, Habits of the Heart, he showcases a woman named Sheila.

“I can't remember the last time I went to church,” Sheila tells Bellah. “My faith has carried me a long way. It's Sheilaism. Just my own little voice…. It's just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think God would want us to take care of each other.”

According to an article in USA Today earlier this week, more Americans are acting like Sheila. The newspaper cites newly released research “that reveals America's drift from clearly defined religious denominations to faiths cut to fit personal preferences.”

“The folks who make up God as they go,” Cathy Lynn Grossman reports, “are side-by-side with self-proclaimed believers who claim the Christian label but shed their ties to traditional beliefs and practices. Religion statistics expert George Barna says, with a wry hint of exaggeration, America is headed for ‘310 million people with 310 million religions.’”

And Grossman noted later that deep differences of opinion also exist within the atheist camp. Some take a live-and-let-live approach, while others argue for aggressive proselytizing for non-belief.

To me, this rich American diversity is a tribute to the success of the U.S. Constitution and its sturdy protection of religious liberty. You can join any faith you want to – or follow no spiritual path at all. You can also be a “cafeteria” believer, picking the practices of your tradition that you want to observe and rejecting others. No government official can order you to comply with any particular perspective about religion.

As Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson put in his 1943 West Virginia v. Barnette ruling, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”

But let’s not be complacent. We know the Religious Right and other theocracy-minded forces are determined to tear down the constitutional wall of separation between church and state. Unable to win conformity through persuasion, they want to control the government and impose their religious opinions by force of law. We must not let them succeed.

Freedom of conscience is indeed a fixed and shining star in the American constellation, and we need to keep it that way.

Tomorrow is Constitution Day. Take this occasion to recommit yourself to the defense of church-state separation and the other constitutional provisions that ensure the rights of Americans. (It would be a great day to join Americans United!) The freedom you save may be your own.