During the push to ratify the Constitution, the Founders quelled fears of an all-powerful federal government by offering ten amendments. The first of these begins: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The first clause (the Establishment Clause) prohibits the federal government from creating a Church of the United States of America, whatever that may look like. The second clause (the Free Exercise Clause) prohibits the government from infringing on religious exercise, or lack thereof.
Implied in the two clauses is the tension between government coercion and permissiveness. If religious liberty were absolute, I could do virtually whatever I want, call it worship, and escape sanction. That’s not the case. For all our talk about “religious liberty,” there is a higher, natural law that no person, church, or any kind of group may step on.
We’ve come a long way. Law, which used to be about just means and just ends, has been hijacked by vicious moral neutrality. In the name of indiscriminateness, every public institution and policy must be stripped of America’s Judeo-Christian heritage. Not so much as a cross or a Ten Commandments display on public grounds is safe from accusations of endorsing religion. Christmas trees and “God talk” are not permitted anymore in public schools. It wouldn’t be so bad if it stopped there. But organizations that provide a service to the public, such as Catholic Charities’ adoption arm, are being defunded in Massachusetts and Illinois because they won’t accept the radical redefinition of two eligible parents.
How did a constitutional safeguard against state religion morph into belligerent indifference on the values that built this country? Simple. Wisdom represented in religious doctrine—that is, lacking exclusively secular reasoning—amounts to theocracy. Theocracy is unconstitutional. Therefore wisdom is unconstitutional. It’s stupid reductionism, but that is where we’re at.
However, the disposition of the law, natural or civil, is to be oriented towards the transcendent, towards the “most high.” If not, what is the law but the whim of mortals who temporarily hold power? In a secular regime, then, “most high” is inevitably man. As we have seen, it cleanses the body politic of God-oriented expression, proscribing all religions but one: man as god. It is more theocratic than the Judeo-Christian moral and civil order it supposes to replace.
For more on this topic, read Matthew J. Franck’s essay in First Things, “Religion, Reason, and Same-Sex Marriage.”