Can Government Be Religiously Neutral?

I take on that question in a new piece at The Federalist today:

The First Amendment forbids the establishment of a state church in the United States, but it in no way imposes the incoherent burden of religious neutrality on our civic institutions, nor demands that the right to free exercise of religion end when one crosses from private life into the public sphere. We are already experiencing the erosion of religious liberties that these erroneous presumptions have caused, with Christian business owners and officials forced to promulgate ideas they abhor and facilitate celebrations that are incompatible with the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Today, when the American left speaks about religious freedom at all, it speaks in terms of “freedom of worship” rather than of free exercise. But freedom of worship is nothing more than the right to go into a private building and follow one’s preferred liturgy on any day of the week so long as it is out of the public view.

The right of free exercise of religion cannot end there, for no religion on earth ends there. Life is a series of choices in which we each decide what’s most important to us. As we order these priorities, every knee eventually bows to something more important than the rest—the “god” we consider to be the Most Important Thing. Whatever the specific details of one’s god, the very nature of a god is that it is supreme—it lays claim to one’s entire life rather than merely one’s private life.

This is true regardless of whether one follows a traditional religion or even refers to one’s highest value as a “god” at all. Even the hedonist, whose god is personal pleasure, does not leave his worship of pleasure behind when he enters the public sphere. If he refrains from certain pursuits in the public eye, it is only because such restraint will net him more pleasure in the long run. Pleasure therefore remains the god that dictates his public activities.

So it is also with the Christian, the Muslim, the secular humanist, and the utilitarian. So when the follower of a god enters into civic life—as anything from a simple voter all the way up to president—he does not and cannot cease following that god. He will instead look to what that god demands of someone who holds the positions he occupies.

Different gods make different demands. One of the reasons theological liberals are so blind on this issue is their ignorant presumption that, at their root, all religions are basically the same—that they all worship the same God, proclaim the same general values and ideals, and merely have different cultural trappings or modes of expression. In such a fantasy, a neutral pluralism is conceivable, but reality is a different matter.

Although there is only one God, there are many gods (i.e., idols) in this world. The extent to which a person will support or even accept things like secular democracy and religious pluralism depends on that person’s god.

What then does that mean for American democracy and religious freedom? It means neither can ever be religiously neutral. Some gods demand such things; some gods merely tolerate them; and other gods abhor them. To embrace these things as worthy of our support and protection and prioritize them over other concerns is to favor some gods and therefore some religions above others.

Read the whole thing here.

Also, for those of you coming here from The Federalist, you might be interested in this blog post regarding the theological rationale for nationalism:  Babel is  Feature, Not a Bug

This entry was posted in Christian Nationalism, Culture, Natural Law, Politics, Tradition. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Can Government Be Religiously Neutral?

  1. Liam says:

    The 14th Amendment ended the constitutional viability of that thesis, though this didn’t become evident until America grew much more greatly in size and demographic complexity.

    • Matt says:

      You could say the same thing for the 1st Amendment given how it’s been used in the past half-century. But it’s not so much the text itself as the philosophies under which it came to be interpreted. “Equal protection” has had the impact it’s had because understandings of “equal” and “protection” have both been twisted so badly.

      Growth of government has also taken its toll. A smaller government steps on fewer toes and creates fewer of these kinds of conflicts.

  2. Malcolm Smith says:

    It should be obvious that a nation cannot be religiously neutral. Of course, a lot of give and take will be needed if members of different religions and none can coexist, but in the final analysis, the nation must adopt some specific values. Thus, Christendom is the only major religion which outlaws polygamy. That some other societies are now doing it simply means they are copying Christianity’s example. One might argue the polygamy lowers the status of women, but that is an open question when the decision is mutual. In any case, the only reason people believe in the equality of the sexes is because they are part of a Christian society.
    But let us look at something more specifically religious. Sunday is (or used to be) a non-business day, because it is the Christian day of worship. Because people started to leave work early on Saturday, eventually businesses closed on Saturday as well – which was a stroke of luck for the Jews, but not for the Muslims. If the law was really religiously neutral, the day of rest would be negotiated between workers and management. But even that wouldn’t work. The key participants would be government workers, especially teachers, because parents will want to be home when their children are out of school. If we are going to have a day off each week, it might as well be the day of worship of the dominant religion.

    • Matt says:

      Yeah, it should be obvious. But most of the younger generations have been trained to ignore certain obvious things.

      You give some good examples of the myriad of tiny social mechanisms on which a culture depends which only work when there’s sufficient cultural common ground.

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