ENGAGING THE DIVINE: Belief in God at the foundation of our liberties
Almost every evening in our nighttime prayer, we thank God for the freedom to gather and worship without fear of government intrusion or interference. That is one of the most formidable gifts of our founding fathers. And it was borne of experience with state religions and religious persecution.
They had learned that the combination of state and religion was the enemy of freedom. States sought the legitimacy and blessing of religion for its policies and actions, no matter how tyrannical. Religion sought the power of the state to enforce its beliefs and practices on others, without regard for religious diversity and plurality.
So the writers of our constitution realized that our basic rights needed to be specified. Merely forming a government with enumerated powers (and implying power to do no more) was proving inadequate to “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” And protecting religious freedom was at the top of the list.
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” We would have no national church like the Church of England. We would have no theocracy in which a church hierarchy would rule over the nation in the name of God. We would have a country that was hospitable to all, regardless of their religious persuasion or beliefs or even their lack of belief.
Like all constitutional rights, the interpretation and application of the First Amendment’s “establishment” and “free exercise” clauses often are controversial. And the debates typically are spirited and intense. That is a tribute to just how meaningful and essential they are to our daily lives. We may quibble over whether the writers of the Constitution were Christians or deists or whatever, but we can say that they were mindful of God, placed their trust in God, and understood that we were created by God with certain “unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Belief in God remains ever at the foundation of our basic liberties. And as a result each of us is free to seek, find, understand, and worship God as we see fit. Something to be especially grateful for as we celebrate our freedom and independence on July 4, 2021,
The Rev. James J. Popham is rector at St. Andrews By-the-Sea in Destin.