How Does the Constitution Protect Religious Freedom?

By Robert A. Goldwin; Art Kaufman | Go to book overview

fulfillment in participation in a community of common purpose, purpose not simply reducible to the agglomeration of private desires or interests of its members. At the least, religion tends to shape human characters who feel the need to do these things. As we have seen, the principle of natural rights and the institutional and social life that flows from it are the most authoritative and fundamental layer of our national life, with many salutary effects upon citizen character. But might we not also appreciate the greater depth and complexity that public religion and the public encouragement of private religion add to human character?

True, we stand for the separation of church and state, which finally determines authoritatively the limits of public religion. The various expressions of civil religion point to liberty, to be sure, as the principled foundation of the regime, but to a view of liberty that is itself pointed toward a kind of perfection. "Pointed toward perfection" is perhaps the appropriate term to describe the resulting blend of influences that the American civil religion places at the core of American nationality. Our principles and our Constitution do indeed prevent us from enforcing the kind of transcendent perfection defining the religious traditions. But they do not prevent us from reinforcing a shadow of that perfection in the beliefs and habits of our citizens.

America is not the perfect political society, so much so as to be the "light unto the nations." Its imperfections at times cause the concerned spectator to groan with weariness, fume with indignation, or lapse into silent despair. We should remember, though, that our own civil religion, rightly understood, prevents us from possessing the pride requisite to that haughty self-designation. But it also encourages us to strive to be worthy of emulation, as Washington in his Farewell Address suggested we might be if we hold true to the promise of our national life. Surely on that Memorial Day we were a "light unto the nations," for quietly the message shone forth: We are the nation that does not imprison the Jew or Moslem, burn the Protestant or Orthodox, disenfranchise the Catholic, execute the Bahai, expel the Buddhist, or banish the unbeliever. We are the nation that beckons them all to join hands to mourn a common loss. Yet we are also the nation that, as part of our nationality, allows our citizens to compose their hearts before Eternity. This fitting blend of freedom and dignity — call it by its simple name: nobility — is the promise of America's civil religion and of the constitutional republic of which it is a part.


Notes
1.
New York Times, May 29, 1984.
2.

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each

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