Of all the great and necessary freedoms listed in the First Amendment, freedom to exercise religion (not just to believe, but to live out that belief) is the most important; before freedom of speech, before freedom of the press, before freedom of assembly, before freedom to petition the government for redress of grievances, before all others.
This freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, is the trunk from which all other branches of freedom on our great tree of liberty get their life. Cut down the trunk and the tree of liberty will die and in its place will be only the barren earth of tyranny. Our founders understood this, and that is why James Madison described the First Amendment's protection of religious freedom as "the true remedy."
The left is actively working to ignore or undermine this foundation of the Constitution (or seeking to rewrite through judicial activism rather than the Amendment process). The strategy is to place this first freedom on the lowest rung of interests to be considered when weighing rights against one another- rather than the first freedom. The fruits of this misguided idea are increasingly evident in Obama Administration policies which undermine religious freedom. President Obama wholeheartedly embraces the philosophy of the left that religion should be swept from the public square and goes even further to not even respect freedom of conscience. He mocked those in our country who cling to "God and Guns". But it's not limited to rhetoric -- his policies limit the rights of religious people. With President Obama, we have seen the exclusion of Catholic groups who have long served women who are victims of sex trafficking because they don't support abortion. In ObamaCare, we find that religious organizations are being forced to provide services that violate their conscience. Obama's Solicitor General argues that churches don't have hiring discretion protected by a "ministerial exception" rooted in the First Amendment. What does this say about the priorities of the left and of this President?
Three pictures hung in the home of my devoutly Catholic immigrant grandparents when I was a boy and I remember them well -- Jesus, Pope Paul VI and John F. Kennedy. The president was a source of great pride and a symbol to Catholics that all barriers had finally been broken. What my family and maybe even candidate Kennedy at the time didn't realize was that in a key moment in that election of 1960 in Houston, Kennedy helped began the construction of another, even more threatening wall for our society -- one that sealed off informed moral wisdom into a realm of non rational beliefs that have no legitimate role in political discourse.
JFK delivered a speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association to dispel suspicions about the role the Catholic church might play in the government of this country under his administration. Let's make no mistake about it -- Kennedy was addressing a real issue and real prejudice at the time. But on that day, Kennedy chose not just to dispel fear, he chose to expel faith. Let me quote from the beginning of Kennedy's speech:
"I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute."
The idea of strict or absolute separation of church and state is not and never was the American model. It was a model used in countries like France and until recently Turkey, but it found little support in America until it was introduced into the public discourse by Justice Hugo Black in the case of Everson v. The Board of Education in 1947. While the phrase "separation of church and state" doesn't appear in the Constitution, the concept of protecting religion from the government does.
The first part of the First Amendment prohibits the federal government from establishing a state church, such as existed in England and in some of the states in 1791, and from discriminating for or against particular faiths. The founders were determined to ensure that the new national government had no jurisdiction over matters of religion, in large part to insure that each American would be free to pursue the religion of their choice without state interference. Far from reflecting hostility toward religion, our founders, rooted in their own faith convictions, knew that faith was not just an essential element, but the essence of civilization and the inspiration of culture.
The second reference to religion in the First Amendment guaranteed the free exercise of religion and in conjunction with the prohibition of established churches, these two concepts were to work together to ensure that religion and people of faith had powerful constitutional protections of their right to not only worship as their conscience dictated, but to be free to bring their religiously informed moral convictions into the public discourse.
The phrase "wall of separation" used by Black comes from a letter written by a founder who didn't even attend the constitutional convention, Thomas Jefferson. After he was elected president he mentioned the phrase in a response to a letter written to him by the Danbury Baptists. The Baptists had expressed concern to him about the right of the government to interfere with the religious pursuits of the people, not the right of the people to engage their government with religiously informed moral judgments. Jefferson's "wall of separation" was describing how the First Amendment was designed to protect churches from the government and nothing more. Note that the Sunday following the day he wrote the letter, Jefferson attended religious services in the Capitol building -- so much for the founders' hostility or indifference to religion. But Kennedy's misuse of the phrase constructed a high barrier that ultimately would keep religious convictions out of politics in a place where our founders had intended just the opposite.
On June 12, 1775, Congress' first act was to urge a national day of "public humiliation, fasting and prayer" for which it commissioned "ministers of the gospel of all denominations" to participate. On the assigned day, Congress attended services at an Anglican Church in the morning and a Presbyterian meetinghouse in the afternoon. The following year they convened at Philadelphia's "Roman Chapel" and later a Dutch Lutheran Church. This is the vision. A vibrant, fully clothed public square; a marketplace of believers and non-believers where truth could be proffered and reasoned, and differences civilly tolerated.
Of course no religious body should "impose its will" on the public or public officials, but that was not the issue then or now. The issue is one that every diverse civilization like America has to deal with -- how do we best live with our differences. Our founders' vision, unlike the French, was to give every belief and every believer and non-believer a place at the table in the public square. Madison referred to this "equal and complete liberty" as the "true remedy." Admittedly our country hadn't always lived up to that ideal -- in particular with respect to Jews and Catholics, thus the legitimate reason for Kennedy's speech. But what JFK advocated sounded more like Ataturk than Madison -- that religious ideas and actors were not welcome in public policy debates.
Ultimately Kennedy's attempt to reassure Protestants that the Catholic Church would not control the government and suborn its independence advanced a philosophy of strict separation that would create a purely secular public square cleansed of all religious wisdom and the voice of religious people of all faiths. He laid the foundation for attacks on religious freedom and freedom of speech by the secular left and its political arms like the ACLU and the People for the American Way. This has and will continue to create dissension and division in this country as people of faith increasingly feel like second-class citizens.
Kennedy took words written to protect religion from the government and used them to protect the government from religion. It worked -- in the years following this speech the concept of an absolute "separation of church and state" gained wider and wider acceptance due to its inculcation in the academy. When I was in the senate I used to question student groups by asking them which phrase was in the constitution "separation of church and state" or "the free exercise of religion"? Separation always won usually by a wide margin. Another consequence is the debasement of our First Amendment right of religious freedom.
As a senator, whenever I was confronted with an immoral law that was unjust or harmed society, I had an obligation to respect the law, but an equal obligation to work toward changing it to comport with what is moral. I agree with the founders that there is a natural law which can be known through the exercise of reason against which the positive or civil law must be measured and if needed amended.
Martin Luther King laid out his approach for ordinary citizens in a Letter from a Birmingham Jail. He wrote: "There are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. ... How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. "
Obviously, not everyone shares the Judeo-Christian moral convictions. All of us have an obligation to justify our positions based upon something that is accessible to everyone irrespective of their religious beliefs. We owe the public arguments based upon reason grounded in truth. Our American civilization has reflected a most healthy union of faith and reason. From long experience, we know that faith for its own sake, apart from love of truth is only a sentiment, and that reason for its own sake withers into rationalism. Neither is autonomous. If I have faith only in myself, I belong to a very small religion. And as for the right use of reason, let's remember what G. K. Chesterton said: "A madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason."
As it has been pointed out to me on numerous occasions, there are moral issues where I have differed from the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and even the pope -- welfare reform, the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and some immigration policies. While all of these issues have profound moral underpinnings none of them involve moral absolutes. War is not always unjust; government aid is not always just or loving. The bishops and I may disagree on such prudential matters, but as with all people of good will with whom I disagree, I have an obligation to them and my country to listen to their perspective and perform a healthy reexamination of my own position.
In contrast, a major political offshoot of Kennedy's articulated philosophy, sometimes referred to as the "privatization of faith," was best illustrated by Mario Cuomo's speech at Notre Dame in September 1984. There he espoused his nuanced position on abortion: that, as a result of his religious convictions he was personally opposed to abortion. But he then applies Kennedy's thesis and refrains from imposing his values upon others whose views, because the truth is indiscernible, are equally valid. A virtual stampede of self-proclaimed Catholic politicians followed Cuomo into this seemingly safe harbor and remain there today. This political hand washing made it easier for Catholics to be in public life, but it also made it harder for Catholics to be Catholic in public life. Mother Teresa's speech at the National Prayer Breakfast, spoken with a humility that made her quiet voice a loud alarm in our hearts, moved me to take a leading role in an issue that pulled at the moral fabric of our country: partial birth abortion.
Did Kennedy reject desegregation because black ministers like the Rev. Martin Luther King arguing from a Biblical premise advocated it? Thank goodness he didn't.
There's a long list of Americans moved by faith who took on great causes for the nation they love: Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose novel Uncle Tom's Cabin shook a nation to war; Jeremiah Evarts, who defended American Indian rights; and Susan B. Anthony, who was inspired by Jesus' radical view of women as equal to men. What would our nation look like had the spirit not moved in them?
Our founders understood it was relatively easy to establish freedom in our Constitution, the harder task was to create a system that would maintain it against the corrosive force of time. The author Os Guinness describes how they accomplished this as the Golden Triangle of Freedom: "Freedom requires virtue, virtue requires faith and faith requires freedom and around again."
Faith requires freedom. Why has America remained a deeply religious country averting the road to secularism traveled by many of our European brothers and sisters? Again Madison's "true remedy," the combination of "free exercise" and no religious state supported monopoly, has created a vibrant marketplace of religions. Our founders' inspired brilliance created a paradigm that has given America the best chance of any civilization in the history of man to endure the test of time. Time, this time now in American history is putting that to the test.
I have always felt comfortable to be on the path our founders took. I do so because I believe we all have an obligation to be good stewards of this great inheritance that generations of Americans created with their last full measure of devotion.
That's why we should feel so blessed to be here at a time when the land that God has so richly blessed is being put to the test. Many generations are never called to do great things, make great sacrifices to maintain liberty. We are the fortunate ones who have the opportunity not only preserve but build on the founders' vision of freedom supported by virtue which in turn is supported by a vibrant faith -- a mutually strengthening interface of church and state that with respect and our collective effort will keep America that beacon of hope, that shining city on the hill. May God continue to bless our country. May we do our part to carry the torch of freedom and pass it successfully to the next generation.