Where faith collides with the Constitution

Freedom, Politics

Republican presidential hopeful Ben Carson predictably stirred up a firestorm back in September after making comments about the inappropriateness of electing a Muslim president. In all the noise, though, it seems fair to ask: Where, exactly, do faith and the Constitution intersect?

America’s religious landscape

There is plenty of disagreement on exactly how religious the Founders themselves—and the nation as a whole—were, and we don’t have strong data from the 1700s. But a May 2015 survey by the Pew Research Center revealed that the Christian demographic of the U.S. population is declining, and the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing. Both trends are occurring across all regions of the nation and among all ages, races, and levels of education.

Roughly seven in 10 Americans identify with the Christian faith, but the percentage of adults who describe themselves as Christians dropped from 78.4 percent in 2007 to 70.6 percent in 2014. Over the same time frame, Americans who describe themselves as atheist, agnostic, or “nothing” jumped from 16.1 percent to 22.8 percent. Furthermore, the share of U.S. adults who identify with non-Christian faiths has risen from 4.7 percent to 5.9 percent, with growth particularly significant among Muslims and Hindus.

Freedom of, not from, religion

Does the changing landscape of American religion suggest that the nation is beginning to move away from a Constitution that was, arguably, inspired by faith? Not necessary, says Richard Brownell, a communications strategist and self-described student of history.

According to Brownell, the first misconception that politically active agnostics have about religion’s place in America is that the Constitution guarantees separation of church and state. “The First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. Neither the phrase nor the concept ‘separation of church and state’ appears anywhere in that founding document,” he explains.

Gerry O’Brien, a “(mostly) Republican” political consultant in New York, agrees and believes that our founding fathers would be appalled by Carson’s comments that a Muslim should not be elected to office of president.

“Anyone who watches the news—especially news from the Middle East—knows that freedom from religion is as important as freedom of religion,” says O’Brien. “It’s not freedom if you are forced to worship someone else’s dogma.”

In the U.S., “we’ve enjoyed more than 200 years of relative peace and coexistence, with people living and working side-by-side—people who would be killing each other if they lived in other parts of the world,” notes O’Brien. “Now, some people want to erase that line of civilization by insisting we worship as they decide we should.”

O’Brien recalls the controversy that surrounded the 2006 swearing in of the first Muslim member elected to Congress: Democrat Keith Ellison won the House seat of his Minnesota congressional district. Ellison was sworn in using a Quran. “Critics failed to grasp that a Bible had been used in the past because it was holy to the individual being sworn—not because American elected officials need to use a Bible,” says O’Brien.

The founders’ moral compass

Jason Swindle, a conservative criminal defense attorney and author of The Verdict is In—Fix the Criminal Justice System, sees things differently. Swindle believes that Carson is correct because our nation was founded on Judeo-Christian values and, although we have freedom of religion, we should stick to the founder’s values. “It is vitally important that we interpret the Constitution from the point of view of what the founders said and wrote,” he says.

But O’Brien counters, “Religious extremists may not realize that if you bring one faith into government, you necessarily invite them all in,” he reasons. “I doubt many people want the Church of Satan invited to speak before a town council meeting.” That same open door provides entry for extreme agnostics and atheists, too. Case in point: In December 2008, Washington state felt compelled to allow a holiday display that espoused atheism to be placed in the capitol building, after an anti-religion group cited the presence of a Nativity display.

The Constitution + faith = balance

Psychologist Lynn Johnson, director at Brief Therapy Center in Salt Lake City, believes the media conflated how Ben Carson would vote (i.e., “not for a Muslim desiring Sharia law”) and what the Constitution says. “We must strictly adhere to the rule of no religious test, yet I personally will not vote for a practicing Muslim,” says Johnson. “I have a right to my opinion. Ben Carson has a right to raise the issue into national dialog. It is the First Amendment: no national religion and freedom of expression.”

Johnson explains that, from a psychologist’s point of view, people’s tendencies are to desire power and to tell others what to do. “The Constitution opposes the tendencies by establishing a rule of law and limits to power. And people flourish when those tendencies are opposed.”

Johnson adds that the Constitution and faith (at least most faiths) counterbalance the power mongering tendencies. “Both Judeo-Christian and Buddhist principles teach compassion as a central virtue,” he says. “Without faith . . . there can be no moral guide.”

But Brownell sums it up thusly: “It is not necessary that every citizen believe in God, and I don’t see a problem if an elected official chooses to not practice religion. However, those who would fight to remove references to God in the Pledge of Allegiance or in public buildings and institutions miss the point. These religious displays do not seek to force people to surrender or alter their beliefs, they only mean to remind them of the moral underpinnings by which this nation was founded.”

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