Religious Freedom versus Church-State Separation: A False Alternative

Those who contend — as Tulsa Congressman Jim Bridenstine does — that religious freedom is possible without separating church and state are promoting a false alternative. In fact, there is no religious freedom without separation of church and state.

Why? Because government is force. The “modern”, subjective, view of government obscures this by focusing on what government does for us, rather than how it does it. Yet, everything government does — whether for us or against us — is imposed on us whether we want it or not. Yes, we have elections where many issues are voted on by us directly — and where we choose representatives to govern us on our behalf. But where does that leave the losers of those elections — especially in a time when many elections are decided by low turnouts? It is the issue of what voters may impose on those losers that was uppermost in the minds of America’s Founding Fathers as they deliberated over the issue of what form they would choose for our government. This is why they chose a republic based on individual rights rather than a direct democracy: their goal was a government that would be strictly limited in what it would be able to use its force on, rather than one where the majority would be able to impose its will — at will — on everybody, regardless of what they wanted to do with their own lives. They wanted a country where everyone would be free to pursue their own lives as long as they did not seek to violate the rights of others, rather than one where everyone would be slaves of the majority by being subject — willy-nilly — to its whims.

This is why rights are limits on government, not on the people. The function of rights is to let government know what it may and may not do, which means: when it may and may not use force. This is why government must be restricted to protecting the individual’s right to his or her own life, liberty, property and pursuit of happiness. And this is why government necessarily violates those rights every time it seeks to do more than simply protect those rights.

This is the issue both left and right seek to evade today: by focusing on ends, they seek to distract us from the use of force by government to attain those ends. And this is why there is no difference between the use of force by the right to impose religion on us and the use of force by the left to impose ideas about society which the right disagrees with. They are both promoting a false alternative and they are both wrong. It is just as wrong to allow Kim Davis to use the force at her disposal as a government official to impose her religious views on her constituents as it is to allow the left to use the force of government to impose its view of same-gender marriage on Christian bakers who object to decorating wedding cakes with messages they disagree with.

Those who promote a view of religious freedom which involves using government power to force their views on all of us should be ashamed of themselves. They seek to violate the very rights they claim for themselves. By doing so, they undermine the very concept of rights: either rights are limits on government or they don’t exist. And a government that is unrestricted by rights is a government that is unlimited. This is why the right is just as guilty as the left for the out-of-control government we have today.

This is why separation of church and state should be a model for all of government: it acknowledges the true function and purpose of government. Government is force and that force must be restricted by individual rights. It is only by recognizing those rights — by recognizing that no one’s religious views may be imposed on others by force, as enshrined in the First Amendment — that the practice of religion can be truly free.

Rob Abiera