The Founding Fathers got it wrong
It should have been freedom from religion
Freedom of religion is great for any dominant religion in America and Christianity has been that dominant religion for most of the country’s existence. Before, during and after the Revolutionary War, the Colonies were a stewing cauldron of competing Christian religions seeking dominance. They were at each other’s throats more than not. As is often the case with religion, it divided the American Colonies more than it united them. The Founding Fathers then had to decide what to do about religion as they put together the Constitution and the subsequent Bill of Rights.
They could have acquiesced to the “Christian” solution and made it the state religion of the new government. This would have been counter to the views of most of the Constitutional framers who paid lip service to the Christian religion but were generally in line with the Epicurean/Locke philosophical views that science as they then knew it was the basis for rational thought and moral rectitude.
It was rejected in large part for a practical reason as the public still chafed under the recent yoke of King George and the Church of England. There was some revulsion to having an American version replace that tyranny with a new National Church tyranny.
The Founding Fathers, despite their high highfalutin philosophical views, were also immensely practical. They showed this when they constructed the compromise on how to count slaves to determine population, even when of course they couldn’t vote. When it came to religion, they found a way to avoid a National Church by adding “freedom of religion” into the Bill of Rights. Great! Everyone could worship as they pleased, right?
It was really the right to belong to any Christian church, no matter how much it was disliked by other Christian denominations. More importantly, other opposing denominations could not establish a National Church. Given the religious strife at the time, supporters of “freedom of religion” viewed it as a respite from religious tyranny.
Very clever on the part of the Founding Fathers. They created freedom of religion and the public was all for it, without having to divulge their own heretical views which they thought would become ascendant in short order. Maybe not so clever on that front. The Founding Fathers were human after all, and like their fellow Christians, they let personal fervor for their own views exaggerate the prospects for them to become dominant. Thus, religion became a food fight among somewhat like-minded folk under the umbrella of the Bill of Rights which sanctioned no National Religion under a truly inventive and revolutionary way to govern.
While brilliant and practical, the Founding Fathers were not clairvoyant. Little could they have imagined that a subset of the dominant Christianity religion would march on its merry way to shape the government in its own image.
Now that Christianity is no longer the dominant religion in America, what next? Wait a minute. Isn’t Christianity still the dominant religion in America?
According to The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), the Christian denominations that drive policy at the Federal and State level (primarily Evangelical Christians and White Catholics) comprise 25% of all Americans. For comparison’s sake, the percentage of people not affiliated with any organized religion is 23%. This percentage is lower than in many other studies, with non-affiliated people reaching as high as 50%.
Despite this, this vocal and persistent Evangelical Christians and White Catholics are using their voting power and open collusion with the Republican Party to constantly push their agenda. More than that, they are part of the power establishment when it comes to supporting candidates and lobbying Congress. All of which takes a ton of money.
This is not meant to disrespect the religious views of Christians. It is not to take away any admiration for using the ballot to promote their views. However, their support for voter suppression, disenfranchising the poor, spreading lies about elections being stolen, and supporting ex-president Trump is hard to even fathom by this author, much less support.
Facing these realities, does a person who wants no part of the policies favored by “conservative” Christians feel safe with simply “freedom of religion” as a backstop? When a segment of Christianity is so dominant, maybe the Founding Fathers got it wrong for our time, and it really should be “freedom from religion”.
When facing the cold reality of Christian power, the first step is to realize that 75% of Americans do not belong to the White Evangelical and White Catholic denominations that drive the “Christian” agenda. We must also no longer be cowed by their righteous rhetoric and do what’s needed to stand by others like ourselves. And we need to vote, vote, vote.
We must make the case that we too are people of faith, and we need to shout it from the mountain tops. It’s a faith in our democracy that makes it possible to exercise our “freedom of religion” and to balance that with a commitment to a religiously tolerant nation.
If we can do this as a nation, then the Founding Fathers did get it right after all.
Ken Grotewiel is a Founding Member of the None of the Above Society.