Much of the current controversy about religion and politics
neither reflects the highest wisdom of the First Amendment nor
serves the best interests of the disputants or the nation. We
therefore call for a critical reappraisal of the course and
consequences of such controversy. Four widespread errors have
exacerbated the controversy needlessly.
The Issue Is Not Only What We Debate, But How:
The debate about religion in public life is too often
misconstrued as a clash of ideologies alone, pitting
"secularists" against the "sectarians" or vice versa. Though
competing and even contrary worldviews are involved, the
controversy is not solely ideological. It also flows from a
breakdown in understanding of how personal and communal beliefs
should be related to public life.
The American republic depends upon the answers to two
questions. By what ultimate truths ought we to live? And how
should these be related to public life? The first question is
personal, but has a public dimension because of the connection
between beliefs and public virtue. The American answer to the
first question is that the government is excluded from giving
an answer. The second question, however, is thoroughly public
in character, and a public answer is appropriate and necessary
to the well-being of this society.
This second question was central to the idea of the First
Amendment. The Religious Liberty provisions are not "articles
of faith" concerned with the substance of particular doctrines
or of policy issues. They are "articles of peace" concerned
with the constitutional constraints and the shared prior
understanding within which the American people can engage their
differences in a civil manner and thus provide for both
religious liberty and stable public government.
Conflicts over the relationship between deeply held beliefs and
public policy will remain a continuing feature of democratic
life. They do not discredit the First Amendment, but confirm
its wisdom and point to the need to distinguish the Religious
Liberty clauses from the particular controversies they address.
The clauses can never be divorced from the controversies they
address, but should always be held distinct. In the public
discussion, an open commitment to the constraints and standards
of the clauses should precede and accompany debate over the
The Issue Is Not Sectarian, But National:
The role of religion in American public life is too often
devalued or dismissed in public debate, as though the American
people's historically vital religious traditions were at best a
purely private matter and at worst essentially sectarian and
Such a position betrays a failure of civil respect for the
convictions of others. It also underestimates the degree to
which the Framers relied on the American people's religious
convictions to be what Tocqueville described as "the first of
their political institutions." In America, this crucial public
role has been played by diverse beliefs, not so much despite
disestablishment as because of disestablishment.
The Founders knew well that the republic they established
represented an audacious gamble against long historical odds.
This form of government depends upon ultimate beliefs, for
otherwise we have no right to the rights by which it thrives,
yet rejects any official formulation of them. The republic will
therefore always remain an "undecided experiment" that stands
or falls by the dynamism of its non-established faiths.
The Issue Is Larger Than the Disputants:
Recent controversies over religion and public life have too
often become a form of warfare in which individuals, motives
and reputations have been impugned. The intensity of the debate
is commensurate with the importance of the issues debated, but
to those engaged in this warfare we present two arguments for
reappraisal and restraint.
The lesser argument is one of expediency and is based on the
ironic fact that each side has become the best argument for the
other. One side's excesses have become the other side's
arguments; one side's extremists the other side's recruiters.
The danger is that, as the ideological warfare becomes
self-perpetuating, more serious issues and broader national
interests will be forgotten and the bitterness deepened.
The more important argument is one of principle and is based on
the fact that the several sides have pursued their objectives
in ways which contradict their own best ideals. Too often, for
example, religious believers have been uncharitable, liberals
have been illiberal, conservatives have been insensitive to
tradition, champions of tolerance have been intolerant,
defenders of free speech have been censorious, and citizens of
a republic based on democratic accommodation have succumbed to
a habit of relentless confrontation.
The Issue Is Understandably Threatening:
The First Amendment's meaning is too often debated in ways that
ignore the genuine grievances or justifiable fears of opposing
points of view. This happens when the logic of opposing
arguments favors either an unwarranted intrusion of religion
into public life or an unwarranted exclusion of religion from
it. History plainly shows that with religious control over
government, political freedom dies; with political control over
religion, religious freedom dies.
The First Amendment has contributed to avoiding both these
perils, but this happy experience is no cause for complacency.
Though the United States has escaped the worst excesses
experienced elsewhere in the world, the republic has shown two
distinct tendencies of its own, one in the past and one today.
In earlier times, though lasting well into the twentieth
century, there was a de facto semi-establishment of one
religion in the United States: a generalized Protestantism
given dominant status in national institutions, especially in
the public schools. This development was largely approved by
Protestants, but widely opposed by non-Protestants, including
Catholics and Jews.
In more recent times, and partly in reaction, constitutional
jurisprudence has tended, in the view of many, to move toward
the de facto semi-establishment of a wholly secular
understanding of the origin, nature and destiny of humankind
and of the American nation. During this period, the exclusion
of teaching about the role of religion in society, based partly
upon a misunderstanding of First Amendment decisions, has
ironically resulted in giving a dominant status to such wholly
secular understandings in many national institutions. Many
secularists appear as unconcerned over the consequences of this
development as were Protestants unconcerned about their de
facto establishment earlier.
Such de facto establishments, though seldom extreme, usually
benign and often unwitting, are the source of grievances and
fears among the several parties in current controversies.
Together with the encroachments of the expanding modern state,
such de facto establishments, as much as any official
establishment, are likely to remain a threat to freedom and
justice for all.
Justifiable fears are raised by those who advocate theocracy or
the coercive power of law to establish a "Christian America."
While this advocacy is and should be legally protected, such
proposals contradict freedom of conscience and the genius of
the Religious Liberty provisions.
At the same time there are others who raise justifiable fears
of an unwarranted exclusion of religion from public life. The
assertion of moral judgments as though they were morally
neutral, and interpretations of the "wall of separation" that
would exclude religious expression and argument from public
life, also contradict freedom of conscience and the genius of
Civility obliges citizens in a pluralistic society to take
great care in using words and casting issues. The
communications media have a primary role, and thus a special
responsibility, in shaping public opinion and debate. Words
such as public, secular and religious should be free from
discriminatory bias. "Secular purpose," for example, should not
mean "non-religious purpose" but "general public purpose."
Otherwise, the impression is gained that "public is equivalent
to secular; religion is equivalent to private." Such equations
are neither accurate nor just. Similarly, it is false to equate
"public" and "governmental." In a society that sets store by
the necessary limits on government, there are many spheres of
life that are public but non-governmental.
Two important conclusions follow from a reappraisal of the
present controversies over religion in public life. First, the
process of adjustment and readjustment to the constraints and
standards of the Religious Liberty provisions is an ongoing
requirement of American democracy. The Constitution is not a
self-interpreting, self-executing document; and the
prescriptions of the Religious Liberty provisions cannot by
themselves resolve the myriad confusions and ambiguities
surrounding the right ordering of the relationship between
religion and government in a free society. The Framers clearly
understood that the Religious Liberty provisions provide the
legal construct for what must be an ongoing process of
adjustment and mutual give-and-take in a democracy.
We are keenly aware that, especially over state-supported
education, we as a people must continue to wrestle with the
complex connections between religion and the transmission of
moral values in a pluralistic society. Thus, we cannot have,
and should not seek, a definitive, once for all solution to the
questions that will continue to surround the Religious Liberty
Second, the need for such a readjustment today can best be
addressed by remembering that the two clauses are essentially
one provision for preserving religious liberty. Both parts, No
establishment and Free exercise, are to be comprehensively
understood as being in the service of religious liberty as a
positive good. At the heart of the Establishment clause is the
prohibition of state sponsorship of religion and at the heart
of Free Exercise clause is the prohibition of state
interference with religious liberty.
No sponsorship means that the state must leave to the free
citizenry the public expression of ultimate beliefs, religious
or otherwise, providing only that no expression is excluded
from, and none governmentally favored, in the continuing
No interference means the assurance of voluntary religious
expression free from governmental intervention. This includes
placing religious expression on an equal footing with all other
forms of expression in genuinely public forums.
No sponsorship and no interference together mean fair
opportunity. That is to say, all faiths are free to enter
vigorously into public life and to exercise such influence as
their followers and ideas engender. Such democratic exercise of
influence is in the best tradition of American voluntarism and
is not an unwarranted "imposition" or "establishment."