On the occasion of receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn spoke of the ideological manipulation of history that occurred under Soviet Communism. It was, he said, “a closing, a locking up, of the national heart, [and an] amputation of the national memory.” He warned that when this happens, a nation “has no memory of its own self. It is deprived of its spiritual unity. And even though compatriots apparently speak the same language, they suddenly cease to understand one another.”
Religion has long been a key component in America’s national life. But today it is increasingly marginalized and erased. Alexis de Tocqueville observed that “religion does not give [Americans] their taste for freedom. It singularly facilitates their use of it.” Our Founders declared that we are “endowed” by our “Creator” with inalienable rights. Our first president’s Farewell Address insisted that “religion and morality are indispensable supports” of our “political prosperity,” and added that “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can be retained without religion.” John Adams asserted that “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
More recently, in his inaugural address, President Kennedy spoke of the rights for which our “forebears fought,” namely “the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.” And in his historic letter from the Birmingham jail, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. maintained that he and his followers “were in reality standing up for what is best in the American dream and for the most sacred values in our Judeo-Christian heritage, thereby bringing our nation back to those great wells of democracy” that, he said, “were dug deep by the founding fathers in their formulation of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.”
But just over half a century later, there is a profound break with such ideals. At the memorial to Reverend King on our national mall, unveiled last year, there is not a single reference to God. Not one. There is no more shocking symbol of the ongoing campaign to drive religion out of our public life than this. King’s statue looks across the Tidal Basin to the Jefferson Memorial dedicated to the president now championed by secularists for inventing a “wall of separation” between Church and State.
Ironically, while the King Memorial was scrubbed of any reference to our Creator, the walls in Mr. Jefferson’s memorial tell us that “the God who gave us life, gave us liberty.” And they ask us, “Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?”
A great deal hinges on how we answer that question.
Today we find a new hostility to the role of religious institutions in American life, while the role of government is expanding in unprecedented ways. It is not only the Obama Administration’s HHS mandate — which forces religious organizations and institutions against their conscience to cover sterilizations, abortion-inducing drugs, and contraception. Arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC last year, the administration sought unprecedented limits on churches and religious institutions.
The administration argued that if any “ministerial exception” in employment exists, it should be strictly “limited to those employees who perform exclusively religious functions.” Chief Justice John Roberts wondered aloud during oral argument whether even the pope could meet the administration’s definition. In the end, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the administration’s reasoning and upheld the First Amendment, saying that to do otherwise would allow government to manipulate the “faith and mission” of churches.
Meanwhile, the HHS mandate also allows only the narrowest exemption for religious institutions: only for those institutions that, among other things, hire and serve only members of their own faith. As Daniel Cardinal DiNardo put it: “Jesus himself, or the Good Samaritan . . . would not qualify as ‘religious enough’ for the exemption, since they insisted on helping people who did not share their view of God.” So in a country where three quarters of the population professes to be Christian, the Obama administration insists upon a religious exemption that Christ himself cannot meet.
HHS political appointees also made sure that the Catholic Church lost the federal funding of its work with trafficked women because it wouldn’t provide them with abortions — something the federal government itself is barred from doing.
A government willing to affect the faith and mission of churches in such a fashion is a government willing to change the identity of churches. Indeed, the administration’s logic is shockingly consistent on these matters: Faith-based groups may function only if their “faith and mission” are acceptable to the government. The administration’s logic extends also to individuals: It applied a similar standard to individual rights of conscience when, as the Washington Post reported, it “rescinded most of a federal regulation designed to protect those who refuse to provide care they find objectionable on moral or religious grounds.” Health-care workers now face the choice of holding on to either their religious beliefs or their jobs.
There is now, a new and unprecedented government intolerance of religion. And when church leaders speak out on moral issues, they are criticized for breaching the separation between church and state by government officials who use their power to refashion church identity according to their own design.
We are now witnessing the repeated effort by government to subordinate religious institutions to its own policy interests. Yet it is precisely this political use of religion at the service of the state that the First Amendment seeks to prevent. Religious liberty is valued not only because it protects personal autonomy, but also because of the good that religion brings into the life of the individual believer and into the life of our nation.
Today, more than ever, we need to keep the words of the Declaration of Independence, and those of Washington, Adams, Kennedy, and King very much in mind. As many commentators have noted, what God has given us, the government has no right to take away. But what the government gives, it certainly can rescind. The answer to Jefferson’s question about whether liberty can be secure if not viewed as a gift from God is obvious. I think Jefferson would have been the first to agree that if America amputates religion from American public life, liberty will soon vanish as well.
— Carl Anderson is Supreme Knight of the Knights of Columbus, a former member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and the author of the New York Times bestseller A Civilization of Love: What Every Catholic Can Do to Transform the World.