Religious Freedom: Tensions and Contentions

by James M. Wall

James M. Wall is Senior Contributing Editor of The Christian Century.

This article appeared in The Christian CENTURY, January 15, 1992, pp. 35-36. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at Article prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. Adams.


Wall explores the meaning and application of the religious freedom amendment in the Bill of Rights for our pluralistic society with its many religious minorities, and a majority that is Christian, white and middle class.

When the 200th anniversary of the adoption of the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution arrived on December 15, the nation appeared more interested in the William Smith trial than in singing Happy Birthday to freedom. But celebration is very much in order, beginning with a word of gratitude to the authors of the Bill of Rights for the First Amendment, which begins with a concern for religious freedom. Lest we assume, however, that the framers had their priorities straight, it should be noted that the First Amendment was not initially first. In debating the amendments to be sent to the states for ratification, the Congress considered and then rejected three other amendments, including one that would have established terms for changing the members' salaries.

The ten amendments include what columnist David Broder describes as "some of the clearest, leanest prose ever embedded in a legal document," beginning with the two religion clauses: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . ." Broder also notes that the First Amendment contains "some of the simplest and least equivocal directives and prohibitions ever framed." But the language is hardly unequivocal. Those first two clauses have generated a large body of case law precisely because they embrace a tension between the right to the free exercise of religion and the prohibition of an established religion.

In recent years the courts have been especially sensitive to the establishment clause, and in doing so they have greatly narrowed the definition of free expression. Washington Post writer Haynes Johnson offers this description of the religion clauses: "Americans forever after would enjoy the right to worship, or not, as they chose; [and] ... government could make no law to establish an official religion" (italics added). By assuming that the "free exercise" clause refers to the right to worship, Johnson, perhaps unconsciously, regards "religion" as something people do either in private or in a sanctuary, mosque or temple. Confining religion to a private space has the effect of making secularity the "established" belief system--and in this sense violating the "no establishment" clause and truncating the "free exercise" clause.

William Buckley, who first achieved fame with his book on the antireligious environment at Yale University, recently addressed the issue of secularity in a lengthy and carefully nuanced essay on anti-Semitism in the National Review. Acknowledging the difficulty of identifying anti-Semitism, Buckley nevertheless boldly concludes that he has found anti-Semitism in the writings of some of his colleagues on the political right as well as among those on the left such as Gore Vidal.

National Review Editor John O'Sullivan points out that Buckley's essay is "ten times as long as the average cover story," but says the topic was important and sensitive enough to dictate printing the entire article. It was a good decision. As one of the chief figures in American conservatism, Buckley is well situated to address a topic which has unfortunately been introduced into the 1992 presidential campaign by Republican candidates David Duke and Pat Buchanan. Buckley's careful treatment is especially valuable because Buchanan and conservative writer Joseph Sobran are among his close friends. Much of his article focuses on whether it is possible to criticize the state of Israel without being labeled anti-Semitic. Buckley believes it is, but he argues that Buchanan and Sobran have gone beyond such criticism.

The essay will no doubt become an important guide in the public debate on Israel and its critics, for it outlines the complexity of an issue that touches upon politics, human rights and religion. In a concluding, section Buckley turns his attention to the religion clauses in the Bill of Rights, which, he believes, provide a second point of tension in our current concern for properly identifying anti-Semitism. Buckley quotes from an essay by Irving Kristol published three years ago in the National Review, because, he admits, Kristol is Jewish, and because "I cannot surpass him in lucid social analysis." Kristol points to the "tension that is now building up between Jews and Christians," a tension that "has very little to do with traditional discrimination, and everything to do with efforts by liberals among whom, I regret to say, Jews are both numerous and prominent to establish a wall between religion and society, in the guise of maintaining the wall between church and state."

Two hundred years after the adoption of the religion clauses, Kristol argues, the prevailing liberal mind-set is far more concerned with avoiding religious establishment than in encouraging religious expression. Specifically, Kristol says, "the major Jewish organizations proceed from the correct proposition that legally and constitutionally we are not a Christian nation, to the absurd proposition that we are in no sense at all a Christian society." Even though the overwhelming majority of Americans are Christians, these Jewish organizations insist that Christians' religion "be a totally private affair, one that finds no public expression and receives no public deference. Such insistence shows a lamentable ignorance of history, sociology and psychology."

Kristol offers a devastating critique of the liberal Protestant organizations that have been "more keenly interested in social reform than in religious belief." Lukewarm Christianity, Kristol suggests, is more attractive to Jews because they assume, incorrectly in his view, that social-minded religious people will be less likely to produce the sort of anti-Semitism "our Jewish ancestors experienced for centuries in Europe." He thinks this is a faulty assumption because vicious anti-Semitism is not Christian anti-Semitism, but neopagan (Nazi and fascist), Muslim fundamentalist, Marxist, or "simply nationalist chauvinist anti-Semitism of a kind one now finds in Japan (of all places!) or Latin America."

It disturbs Kristol that "American Jews are utterly unprepared for this new world, in which Christians wish to be more Christian without necessarily being anti-Semitic." Since this society is largely Christian, Kristol would have Jews accept this reality and, instead of being fearful, turn to their own faith. Jews who view with alarm the signs of Christian revival do so because, Kristol says, they incorrectly believe that if and when Christians embrace their own faith with greater fervor, this will be harmful to the Jews. It won't, he insists, if his reading of history is correct--that it has been perversions of faith, not authentic revivals, that have led to anti-Semitism.

Buckley, a Catholic, recalls that when he was a teenager he took pride in announcing that he would skip Friday chapel at his Protestant boarding school and walk five miles with several other students and one faculty member to attend mass. "I found the experience other than self-isolating: I think I actually got something of a kick out of it, as many Catholics did during those decades when, for instance, they would politely decline to eat meat served to them on Fridays."

In this experience he finds common cause with Michael Kinsley, who has written: "There is a majority culture in this country. It is Christian, white, middle class. Jews and nonbelievers (I am both) are outsiders to some extent in that culture. So are blacks, homosexuals, Orientals, and so on." Kinsley adds that this is also a society committed to protecting the civil rights and economic opportunities of minorities, and it is crucial that the battle for minority rights continue. "But does final victory require eradication of the majority culture? And is every manifestation of that culture an insult to those who aren't fully a part of it?"

To be in the minority, or to be an "outsider" from the mainstream, is not all bad, Kinsley concludes. "The enormous literary contribution of homosexuals, the prominence of Jews in courageous social causes of all sorts, the creation of jazz by blacks, all derive in part from the discomfort of being outside the majority culture."

The framers of the Bill of Rights could not have anticipated the rich pluralism of contemporary America, but they gave us a framework in which pluralism is something to cherish, not to fear. We must be vigilant in protecting minority rights. But we must also be careful not to read the "no establishment" clause so as to restrict all public expressions of faith and hence dilute the meaning of "free exercise."

The "free exercise" clause applies to all faith groups equally and should not be seen as a threat to those that are in the minority--precisely the groups that the "no establishment" clause was designed to protect.