Magazine | September 10, 2012, Issue

All In for the First Amendment

The stakes for our fundamental freedom

John Lennon’s juvenile paean to debonair nihilism, recently featured at the closing ceremonies of the XXX Olympiad, asks us to “imagine” a world in which there’s “no religion.” A careful examination of the Obama administration’s record on religious freedom suggests that this Lennonist Kool-Aid has been deeply imbibed at the White House, the State Department, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Department of Justice — and because of that inebriation, America’s first freedom is under severe assault.

This crisis is also a tremendous opportunity for the Republican party. Early this year, religious freedom became the surprise issue of the current election cycle. Yet over the past eight months it has also become a great clarifier: an issue that makes unmistakably clear the stakes on November 6, when the choice before the electorate will be between two dramatically divergent visions of the American future.

The first imagines an America in which the robust institutions of civil society make essential contributions to the common good, and do so according to their own convictions and principles of organization. The second imagines an America in which the national government occupies virtually the entire public square; here, the free and voluntary associations of civil society are reduced to state functionaries, tolerated so long as they do Leviathan’s bidding.

Throughout the nation’s history, this first vision of American possibility has often been embodied in religious institutions, doing the works of education, health care, social service, and other forms of voluntary charitable activity. And in those works, Americans espousing a wide variety of religious beliefs have come to live an experience of tolerance in which differences are engaged within a bond of civility and a common commitment to the Golden Rule. The alternative America promoted by the administration is, despite a veneer of piety, deeply secularist, aggressively intolerant, and hegemonic. Nor is the administration’s secularity a benign one, seeking a place in the public square for the religiously tone deaf; this is aggressive secularism, demanding a public space scoured of religiously informed moral conviction and insisting that religious institutions measure social, charitable, and educational work by the state’s secularist standards.

In the first vision of the American future, religious conviction underwrites religious freedom, and citizens live tolerance because, as the late Richard John Neuhaus put it, they understand it to be God’s will that they be tolerant of those who have different understandings of God’s will. Thus throughout 2012 the defense of religious freedom has been mounted by a coalition of Catholics, evangelical Protestants, and Mormons whose religious convictions compel them to defend the religious liberty of all. In the alternative America being built by the Obama administration, robust religious conviction, and religiously informed moral argument, are considered the great threats to civility and tolerance; the truly democratic public square, the administration seems to suggest, is a radically secularized public square.

But this is manifestly absurd and profoundly undemocratic. For hegemonic secularism denies to fellow citizens the right to bring into public life their most deeply held convictions, even as it seeks to conscript believers’ institutions into the state’s service. And, as in Europe and Canada, where an aggressive and exclusivist secularism has taken deeper root, homegrown hegemonic secularism is informed by deeply troubling assumptions about the nature of religious conviction, and thus about the meaning of religious freedom in full.

The first indicator of serious trouble on this front came in December 2009, when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton gave a major address on the Obama administration’s international human-rights policy at Georgetown University. Describing the administration’s top-priority issues, Secretary Clinton jettisoned decades of American human-rights policy and spoke, not of “religious freedom,” but of “freedom to worship” — which she then linked, in a litany of priorities, to the right to love as we “choose.” Religious freedom, in other words, is a kind of privacy right: a matter of lifestyle choice, involving certain leisure-time activities, of no more public consequence than the choice to go to the movies rather than the symphony. On this view, “freedom to worship,” construed as another lifestyle liberty enjoyed by the Imperial Autonomous Self, exhausts the meaning of “religious freedom.”

#page#That dumbed-down notion of religious freedom has driven the Obama administration’s foreign policy for four years: in part because of the administration’s anorexic concept of religious-belief-as-lifestyle-choice; in part because of the absolute priority the administration gives to what it unblushingly calls the “LGBT agenda” in its international human-rights policy. And if this is how the Obama administration thinks about religious freedom in the world, it should be no surprise that it has taken a similarly dumbed-down approach to religious freedom domestically. At home, as abroad, “religious freedom” for the Obama administration seems to have neither public character nor institutional expression. And if religious freedom should collide with the “LGBT agenda,” the war to redefine marriage, or the defense of the abortion license created by Roe v. Wade, well, the first freedom would just have to give way; after all, HHS and Justice weren’t preventing Americans from attending church, synagogue, or mosque, were they?

While a generally statist cast of mind explains a lot about the Obama administration, the aggressive secularism that seems to inform administration policy helps illuminate what might otherwise remain murky in several areas.

Why, for example, would the administration have sought to undercut the “ministerial exception” to equal-employment-opportunity law, unless it refused to concede that religious convictions give rise to religious communities, which have the right to structure themselves according to those convictions?

Why would the administration have refused to defend a federal statute, the Defense of Marriage Act, unless the lifestyle-choice and LGBT agendas trumped yet again, and unless the administration regarded biblically informed convictions about marriage as mindless prejudices unworthy of democratic citizens?

And why, to cite the most prominent case, would the administration try to compel the educational, charitable, social-service, and medical institutions sponsored by the Catholic Church, and conscientious Catholic employers, to provide “reproductive health services” that the Catholic Church regards as gravely immoral? The administration has ample means to distribute contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs, and to facilitate sterilizations; it can meet its public-policy goals — however misguided — without coercing Catholic institutions and Catholic employers into what their Church teaches is wrong. So why bother? Because, it seems, the administration considers lifestyle libertinism the real “first freedom,” just as it regards religious institutions as mere vehicles for the delivery of state-defined and state-approved “benefits.”

The First Amendment is first because of an accident of the ratification process, but in this way, as in other ways, the Founders and Framers built better than they knew. Religious freedom is the first of civil rights for two related reasons. It defines a sphere of community-forming conviction and conscience into which coercive state power may not tread; and in doing so it creates an essential condition for the possibility of social pluralism (or, if you prefer, it inoculates the democratic body politic against the totalitarian temptation built into all political modernity). When the state acknowledges the true first freedom, it acknowledges its own limits. When the state protects the true first freedom in law, it promotes the integrity and flourishing of civil society, even as the state fulfills its constitutional obligation to be a partner with civil society in forming a “more perfect union” in which the “blessings of liberty” are secured for the present and the future.

Religious freedom is not, therefore, one of “those issues” from which opponents of the Obama administration should shy away for fear of frightening the horses. As Governor Mitt Romney suggested in his recent speech in Warsaw, the quest for religious freedom — not merely “freedom of worship,” but religious freedom in full — was a key to the Revolution of 1989 in central and eastern Europe and the demise of European Communism. The defense of religious freedom in full can similarly be a key to strengthening the United States as a responsible and compassionate political community in which religious conviction underwrites civility, tolerance, and respect for the rule of law, and in which civil-society institutions, including religious institutions, play a full role in education, health care, and social service.

The soft totalitarians of “lifestyle choice” have spent considerable energies, these past four years, in efforts to reduce the first freedom to the mere protection of individual preferences for private recreational activities. Enough of that is enough.

The stakes could not be higher. The cause could not be more compelling. It is time to be all in for religious freedom, and for religious freedom in full.

– Mr. Weigel is a L.C. distinguished senior fellow at the Ethics and Public policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

George Weigel — George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. His many books include the two-volume ...

In This Issue

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

Rubio Rising

Immediately after Mitt Romney clinched the Republican nomination in May, we political analysts found ourselves immersed in the veepstakes. This is essentially a gussied-up form of entrail reading, and the ...
Politics & Policy

Regime Change

Sometime in 2007, a documentary filmmaker named Lauren Greenfield insinuated herself into the lives of David and Jackie Siegel, a septuagenarian time-share tycoon and his middle-aged, much-augmented wife. At the ...
City Desk


People are not the only immigrants in the world. The age of discovery began a transatlantic exchange of animals, plants, and germs. Most of us know about the devastating effects ...


Politics & Policy


The Iraqi Rotary Yuval Levin hit the nail on the head with “The Hollow Republic” (August 13). I was reminded of a speech I heard in 2004 by an administrator in ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ When Harry Reid said the candidate was “light-skinned” and had “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one,” who knew he was talking about Biden? ‐ You want to ...
Politics & Policy


MEMORIES OF ENGLAND So, having tackled most of Churchill’s History, Surfed the net for tickets and a book, Hopped a jet and, spellbound by the mystery Of dynasty and tomb, gulped with a look The ...

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

Students’ Anti-Gun Views

Are children innocents or are they leaders? Are teenagers fully autonomous decision-makers, or are they lumps of mental clay, still being molded by unfolding brain development? The Left seems to have a particularly hard time deciding these days. Take, for example, the high-school students from Parkland, ... Read More
PC Culture

Kill Chic

We live in a society in which gratuitous violence is the trademark of video games, movies, and popular music. Kill this, shoot that in repugnant detail becomes a race to the visual and spoken bottom. We have gone from Sam Peckinpah’s realistic portrayal of violent death to a gory ritual of metal ripping ... Read More

Romney Is a Misfit for America

Mitt’s back. The former governor of Massachusetts and occasional native son of Michigan has a new persona: Mr. Utah. He’s going to bring Utah conservatism to the whole Republican party and to the country at large. Wholesome, efficient, industrious, faithful. “Utah has a lot to teach the politicians in ... Read More
Law & the Courts

What the Second Amendment Means Today

The horrifying school massacre in Parkland, Fla., has prompted another national debate about guns. Unfortunately, it seems that these conversations are never terribly constructive — they are too often dominated by screeching extremists on both sides of the aisle and armchair pundits who offer sweeping opinions ... Read More

Fire the FBI Chief

American government is supposed to look and sound like George Washington. What it actually looks and sounds like is Henry Hill from Goodfellas: bad suit, hand out, intoning the eternal mantra: “F*** you, pay me.” American government mostly works by interposition, standing between us, the free people at ... Read More
Film & TV

Black Panther’s Circle of Hype

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) first infantilizes its audience, then banalizes it, and, finally, controls it through marketing. This commercial strategy, geared toward adolescents of all ages, resembles the Democratic party’s political manipulation of black Americans, targeting that audience through its ... Read More