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Faith, Freedom, and the First Amendment: A Liberal Perspective

(This is the text of the Director's talk at the ODU Friends of the Library Annual Author Dinner, March 29, 2006, at which the Director's book, Faith Without Certainty: Liberal Theology in the 21st Century (2005) was honored.)

Thank you for inviting me to be with you this evening. It is a great pleasure and a great honor to be here. I'm gratified by your interest in a book about religious liberalism. I'm sure many people think "liberal religion" is an oxymoron, so I'm glad to have a chance to refute that stereotype with an audience not made up entirely of Unitarian Universalists and Quakers.

The topic I have chosen for my remarks this evening gives me a chance to explore some links between the work I did in the book and my current work at Virginia Wesleyan. For me there is a natural connection between religious liberalism and religious freedom, and this is what I will focus on. But there is also a larger point. I believe that our attitudes toward religious freedom, and toward related issues such as church-state separation, are largely shaped by our religious views, or what I call our explicit and implicit theologies. We all have these, whether or not we think of ourselves as religious, and whether we call them "theologies" or "comprehensive worldviews" or something else. The liberal religious take on all this is but one among many. In the final part of the talk, I'll return to this larger point by looking at a couple of contrasting examples from other religious perspectives.

Let me begin with a few general observations. These are things I'm sure you already know, but they are worth saying in order to help put my remarks in context. First, the American people are overwhelmingly a religious people. Whether we measure this by membership in religious groups, or belief in God, or the importance of spiritual practices, religion plays an important role in the lives of most Americans. And this is true not only for mainline Protestant or Roman Catholic Christians, which represent a rapidly shrinking portion of our increasingly diverse society, but also for the many millions of Americans who identify as Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Wiccan, Native American, Mormon, Bah'ai, Sikh, Afro-Caribbean, and other faiths. This rich and thriving diversity is itself an indication of the importance of religion in America today.

Second, religion plays a prominent role in our public and political life. Religion is everywhere today – in the newspapers, on the airwaves and the internet, in our public discussions about social issues, even in political speeches. We don't all agree on whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, but we can't deny the pervasiveness of religion in public life today. In the United States, religion matters.

Third, religious freedom matters too. Religious freedom is widely regarded as one of our most precious rights. It is deeply engrained in our social and political culture, and it is structurally embedded in the First Amendment to our Constitution. Practically no one wants to see an established or official church, and very few people think we'd be better off if we all shared the same faith.

However, while we all agree that religious freedom is a good thing, we don't all agree on what it means. This is a critical point. And it's not just that the law is unclear, though it is; Supreme Court decisions on the First Amendment's religion clauses, for example, are famously confused and inconsistent. But on a deeper level, we as a people have different and often conflicting understandings of what religion is, what freedom is, and perhaps more importantly, who gets to decide. Policies and laws that for some seem to protect religious freedom, look to others like special privilege. Religious influence on public issues, which for some constitutes an important and deeply felt expression of faith, to others seems corrupting and coercive. These are difficult and important issues, and our views about them are affected by our religious and political starting points.

Let me turn, then, to religious liberalism. For purposes of the comparison I want to make tonight, I will not discuss liberal belief patterns about God, or Jesus, or salvation, or other matters of doctrine. Instead, I want to focus on liberal religion's deeper values and central commitments. I see three basic categories of these values: those pertaining to the individual, those pertaining to community and social structures, and a third category I'll call the prophetic.

First, then, religious liberals have always placed a high value on individual autonomy. Liberals often speak of this in terms of human freedom. In theological terms, the idea is that humans are created as free beings, and that religious belief is meaningful only if it is voluntary, only if it is free from coercion. We might think of the deeper value here as freedom of conscience.

An important corollary to this emphasis on autonomy is that religious liberals seem to have a built in suspicion of external authority. This is very different than in the more orthodox religious traditions, where ultimate authority is normally located in external sources such as the Bible or the church itself. Liberals, in contrast, tend to be fiercely independent. It is almost an article of liberal faith that nothing can be taken as truth simply because the church or some other established authority says so. A less polite way to say this is that we liberals like to think of ourselves as our own ultimate authority.

Religious liberals also share a strong belief in free inquiry, and this leads to a fluid and open-ended understanding of religious truth. Liberals flatly reject the traditional theological notion that truth is given once for all time by God, and is therefore complete and unchangeable. Instead, liberals are likely to say that meaning is constructed rather than given. A common way of expressing this in religious language is to say that "revelation is continuous." One of the great liberal theologians of the 20th century, James Luther Adams, used this phrase to express the idea that reality is continuously recreated and that as a consequence, no belief system or historical moment may claim any special status. As he put it, "meaning has not been finally captured. Nothing is complete, and thus nothing is exempt from criticism."

To say that truth is never finally settled is not to say that reality is meaningless or that there are no standards by which to seek and measure truth. The liberal approach simply recognizes that truth is at least partly a product of our culture, that it will evolve and change over time, and that we do the best we can with the knowledge we have. We are a long way from the postmodern dilemma of nihilistic relativism, which holds that no standards for discerning truth can be justified at all.

Another point is that religious liberals have always been comfortable with religious pluralism. Their open-ended approach to religious truth tends to generate a certain amount of theological diversity even within particular religious communities. Many of the more liberal denominations, such as Unitarian Universalists and Quakers, do not have creeds or sets of specific beliefs their members must sign onto. Individual congregations in these traditions often include everything from Christian theists to neopagans to atheistic humanists. And even mainline liberal Protestants such as Methodists and Congregationalists normally include people who have a broad range of beliefs about the Bible, about Jesus, and about God. This can be confusing to newcomers, but from a liberal perspective, this is a good thing. As Adams once quipped, "if some people wish infallible guidance in religion, they are not going to find it in liberal religion."

The second set of religious liberalism's deep values constitutes those relating to community and social structures. While liberals emphasize individual autonomy, they also generally believe that human fulfillment can be achieved only in relationship with others. An important form of these relationships is a loving and supportive religious community. Liberals have also insisted that all relationships must be based on mutual and free consent, and not on any form of coercion. The liberal understanding of church, for example, has been that of the gathered community, or voluntary association, to use a more secular term. Authority is usually located in the members, so that church leaders are chosen democratically from within, not imposed authoritatively from without. Adams was fond of referring to liberal social organization as a protest against pecking orders.

The liberal view of community incorporates a vision of justice. There is an obligation to create a religious community that is just in its own internal structures, as well as an obligation to seek justice in the larger society. An important part of this effort is a recurring cycle of self-examination and internal critique. My own book is partly written in this tradition, since one of my goals was to address a series of hard issues I think religious liberals need to deal with today.

This tradition of justice and critique leads to my third point, which is the liberal religious emphasis on the prophetic voice. I'm using the term "prophetic" in the biblical sense here. The prophets were those who spoke for justice. They called society and its leaders to account for injustice, especially on behalf of the most vulnerable members. Speaking prophetically requires a certain distance, which is another way of saying that it requires freedom. A religious tradition that values freedom is more likely to make the social and religious space for the critical prophetic voice. Religious liberalism has historically understood itself in this light.

Let me turn now to religious freedom. I'll follow the same pattern here and identify a few core principles, drawing some links to religious liberalism as I go.

I'll begin with freedom of conscience. Freedom of conscience is often said to lie at the very heart of religious freedom. This phrase did not make it into the final version of the First Amendment, but during the colonial period it was one of the most common ways of expressing the idea of religious freedom. For the founders, this principle encompassed what was called the "right of private judgment" in matters of religion – the right to freely choose one's own religious beliefs, and to change them. This is obviously similar to the liberal religious principles of individual autonomy and non-coercion.

We tend to think of freedom of conscience as an individual or private matter. But as I see it, there is also an important social justice dimension. Freedom of conscience guards against bullying. As a matter of constitutional law, it is about keeping our deepest convictions free from coercion by the government. But it is also about not being bullied by louder voices, even other religious voices that may have greater access to official and unofficial channels of power.

A second principle, free exercise of religion, follows naturally from freedom of conscience. The phrase "free exercise" did find its way into the First Amendment. At bottom, this idea is basically about the freedom to express your beliefs and practice your faiths, and about voluntarily forming associations with others who may share them. And it is about recognizing this same freedom for others who have different beliefs and practices. Again, you can see how this principle lines up with the liberal religious emphasis on voluntary community.

A third fundamental value of religious freedom is religious pluralism. This too emerges naturally from freedom of conscience. In a sense, we can say that democracy itself presupposes pluralism, including religious pluralism. James Madison certainly thought so. As he put it: "freedom arises from the multiplicity of sects, which pervades America, and which is the best and only security for religious liberty in any society. For where there is such a variety of sects, there cannot be a majority of any one sect to oppress and persecute the rest." In other words, pluralism is not just a sociological fact, it is a basic condition of freedom. Of course the pluralism we have in the United States today is vastly broader than anything Madison could have imagined. But the principle is the same. A healthy religious pluralism is as vital to democracy as a health democracy is to religious pluralism. Democracy and pluralism support each other, and religious freedom supports both.

Finally, religious freedom encompasses the principle of church-state separation. These words are not in the Constitution, something those who are opposed to it are fond of pointing out. But a prohibition against establishing a national church is in the Constitution, and as I see it, the principle of church-state separation, if not the words, is there too. At the most obvious level, this means that the historic link between state authority and ecclesial authority, which had been the pattern in Europe, would not become the model in the United States. At a deeper level, the founders clearly saw church-state separation as a way to protect freedom of conscience. Like the other principles, this too is ultimately about freedom from coercion.

Church-state separation is also a long-standing value in religious liberalism. It is implied in the liberal rejection of external authority and the liberal mistrust of hierarchy, and it is often articulated expressly by liberal religious groups today. The United Methodist Church, to take one example, has adopted a lengthy resolution affirming the importance of the separation of church and state, for both theological and political reasons. Because of Virginia Wesleyan's Methodist heritage, I have put this on our web site, along with a few other similar statements.

Other points could be made, but this is enough to show the basic continuity between religious liberalism and religious freedom. In terms of the larger point I want to make, we might say that someone who holds a liberal religious orientation is likely also to support the political principle of religious freedom. Yet in some ways, liberalism is the easy case. Historically, both religious liberalism and political liberalism are largely products of the Enlightenment, so it is only natural that they would share many of the same commitments.

But liberals don't have a monopoly on religious freedom. To turn now to the general relationship between theology and religious freedom, I'd like to close by looking briefly at two very different examples. In theological terms, both of these would be identified as conservative. But they have very different understandings of religious freedom. The first is the Baptist tradition; the second, for lack of a better word, is the religious right.

Baptists come in a huge variety of shapes and sizes, and it's almost impossible to generalize about them on any point other than their fierce independence. This is something they share with liberal groups such as Unitarian Universalists and Quakers. Theologically, on the other hand, Baptists couldn't be further apart. Yet as a movement, they are at least as committed to religious freedom as most religious liberals.

The theology behind this commitment can be traced directly to Roger Williams, the founder of the Baptist movement in North America. Williams articulated a strong theological argument for religious liberty and church-state separation. His position deeply influenced those who drafted the Constitution. It also stands in sharp contrast to the theocratic Puritans who kicked him out of Massachusetts in 1636, but that's a story for another day.

The starting point of the Baptist position is a theology of human freedom. This is a different understanding of human freedom than the liberal view, but it leads to the same political conclusion. In the Baptist view, faith is a gift from God, and to be genuine it must be accepted voluntarily. In this sense, freedom implies a kind of willing submission to God. Isaac Backus, one of the leading New England Baptists of the 18th century, put it this way: "nothing can be true religion but a voluntary obedience unto [God's] revealed will." In other words, religious faith cannot be coerced. Each individual is called by God to make a free and conscientious choice to accept this divine gift. This theological stance led Williams to support religious toleration, which he made a prominent feature of his Rhode Island settlement.

Williams was also a strong advocate of church-state separation. We commonly associate the metaphor of the wall of separation with Thomas Jefferson, but it actually came from Williams more than 150 years before Jefferson used it. Williams spoke of "a wall of separation between the garden of the Church and the wilderness of the World." He rejected the Puritan idea that a civil government could be the tool of God. For Williams, the state has no role at all to play in God's drama of salvation. To claim that any government had divine sanction was a form of blasphemy.

The religious right, on the other hand, is a different story. When I say religious right, I am speaking theologically and not politically, although the two are related. I have in mind groups whose theology is exclusivist. Exclusivists believe there is only one truth, only one path to salvation, and they are on it. More than this, they often feel an obligation to help others, who might otherwise be lost, get on this path. This obligation extends not just to individuals, but to society as a whole. Society needs to be saved from the corruption and the secularism it is now wallowing in. Because they feel a religious obligation to save the culture from its sins, they often want their views to become general public policy or even law.

One common expression of this view comes from those who speak of America as a Christian nation. My sense is that when people use this phrase they are not simply pointing to the historical influence of Christian ideals, which is clear; they are claiming that Christianity should somehow become normative. So, they may press for things like posting the Ten Commandments in public buildings and prayer in the public schools. Many even feel that their own religious freedom is violated unless they can do this. They feel, in other words, that the state should actively promote religion – and in particular, their form of the Christian religion.

I think most people in this group are sincere, and that they act most of the time from deeply held religious beliefs. But religious sincerity is not the issue. I believe the religious right, in the form of theological exclusivism I am talking about here, poses a dangerous threat to religious liberty. For one thing, it completely disregards and dishonors the many millions of Americans who follow different religious paths.

For another, it disregards the theological pluralism within American Christianity. Just to take one example of how this diversity plays out in the legal context – and this may surprise you – when the Supreme Court hears a school prayer case, for example, the vast majority of Christian denominations often file briefs with the Court affirming church-state separation and opposing the prayer. And finally, from a historical and legal perspective, the exclusivist view promotes a model of the church-state relationship that was rejected by the founders and continues to be rejected by the courts.

My own view is that when people support government-sponsored religious practices in the name of religious freedom, we have a serious disconnect. Our religious freedom is weakened, not strengthened, by official religious activities. I'm in pretty good company on this point. As James Madison said, "religion flourishes in greater purity without, than with the aid of government." I sometimes suspect that those who want the government to sanction their religious practices are really seeking religious power, not religious freedom.

But my larger point is that, like the religious liberals and the Baptists, the exclusivist position on religious freedom also reflects a deeper theology. Our theologies matter.

One of the great dilemmas of a pluralist democracy is how to accommodate those whose views are contrary to democracy's most basic commitments. It may be that an exclusivist theology is fundamentally incompatible with the democratic principle of religious liberty. And yet we are committed to recognizing the freedom of those who would deny our freedom. For me, the sol ution is not to silence them, an impossibility in any case, but for religious liberals and other non-exclusivists to speak out, to show that there is another way of being religious – a way that fully supports both our political and our religious freedoms.

Thank you for allowing me to be one of those voices here this evening.

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