Just what does religious freedom mean, particularly in the American context? Many think it means that we are free to worship the way we want to (or feel called to), without government influence or interference. But, according to Craycraft, that conception is sadly mistaken, primarily because it was not what the founding fathers actually meant by religious freedom. Using United States Supreme Court decisions and other legal precedents, he argues that governments which seek to protect the freedom of religion must, by their very nature, actually subjugate the freedom of religion to the primary purpose of governmental preservation.
By now, you are probably thinking back to your high school civics class, and quoting the First Amendment (Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof). The major problem, as Craycraft reminds us, is the legal distinction between one's beliefs and one's conduct. Beliefs are now, and have always been, at least in the United States, seen as free from governmental limitations. Conduct, however, often does indeed fall victim to governmental limitations, because it falls under governmental jurisdiction in that it affects both the general society and government. This is why several major legal decisions in the history of the US have found that the government can constitutionally impose limitations on conduct, even if that conduct is religious, as long as the limitations do not focus specifically on religious conduct or have specific religious intentions.
This is a quite unnerving realization, particularly if you have long believed in the total freedom to practice your religion as you see fit.
Governmental limitation of religious conduct is not a distortion of the First Amendment, Craycraft argues, because that limitation is precisely what the founding fathers had in mind. Major contributors to the US Constitution, including Jefferson and Madison, wanted the government to be able to preserve itself by limiting the influence of religion on government. So, contrary to what many believe, Craycraft sees the First Amendment as an attempt to protect government from religion, instead of protecting religion from government.
Thus, he concludes that we have never really had true religious freedom in the United States. Lest this offends our sense of patriotism, Craycraft explains that no other nation has ever had true religious freedom either,as long as that nation had a government. For government, by its nature, is self-interested and will always seek to limit how external forces can affect it. This does not mean that Craycraft urges anarchy or the absence of government. He simply feels that we cannot allow the government to define religious freedom for us. He sees the principles set forth in the Second Vatican Council's Declaration on Religious Liberty as a more enduring and valid conception of religious freedom, and urges us to live out our role as Christians in society despite the limitations that our government tries to place on us.
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