Freedom of Religion in America

By Taylor, Gary; Hawley, Helen | Contemporary Review, June 2003 | Go to article overview
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Freedom of Religion in America


Taylor, Gary, Hawley, Helen, Contemporary Review


THE explanation we give to the origins and purpose of life is liable to be one of the most important judgements (or series of judgements) we are ever likely to make. On a surface level, our willingness or reluctance to endorse a particular religion is no more significant than our support or condemnation of any other cause or party. Yet religion stirs the human heart in a most extreme way. For those who doubt or deny the existence of God, such feelings may well appear ridiculous. It has been argued, however, that the importance of religion lies in the meaning it confers upon life and death, sex, family, mind and body. The importance we attach to religion depends to a great extent upon our ideological convictions. Religious views have social power; they can inspire, punish, coerce, unite and divide communities. This applies both locally and on a global scale.

Since the horrors of September 11, 2001, the Muslim community has found itself under attack. The number of hate crimes against Muslims has increased and Muslim groups (especially in the USA) have been under constant pressure to distance themselves from Al Qaeda and have been forced to defend their religious beliefs. According to reports in the Economist, America's approach to immigrants has become tougher especially in respect to students from Muslim countries. Muslim Americans have also become fearful of anti-Islamic groups on the right of the political spectrum. Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesperson for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, has argued that these 'right wingers are trying to set up a civilisational conflict with all their might in the same way as Osama Bin Laden'. Whilst the vast majority of Americans reject such intolerance, polls conducted show that approximately 27 per cent of those interviewed found it more difficult after September 11 to respect other cultures and values, though 56 per ce nt felt that they had become more tolerant. Wars and national crises are apt to place strains on liberal tolerance.

Religion and the American System

Freedom of religion is one of the key civil rights enshrined within the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. The early European settlers in America were often fleeing from religious persecution. This made tolerance of different religions essential for a new beginning and suspicion of state involvement in religious affairs virtually inevitable. The American liberal perspective on religion, which is enshrined in the American Constitution, can be seen in the views of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. Madison claimed in 1785 that our religious sensibilities must be left to our own conscience, and that we must have the right to live and believe according to its dictates. This was described as an 'unalienable right'. Given that we require this freedom, it was also important that 'we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us'. Any abuse of this right was seen as an offence against God. Jefferson likewise argued that any attemp t to suppress faiths other than our own 'on supposition of their ill tendency' would destroy religious freedom. He claimed that 'it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg'. Jefferson believed that there needed to be a 'wall of separation' between the state and the church. No person should be coerced into believing or not believing a particular faith, nor punished for expressing such views.

The First Amendment's position on religion is two-fold: Congress should not establish a religion nor prohibit the free exercise of religion. These have become known as the 'establishment' and 'free-exercise' clauses. The 'establishment' clause was defined in greater detail in Everson v Board of Education (1947). This case arose because the New York State Board of Regents, who oversee education, composed a non-denominational prayer for use in New York schools.

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