We don’t need freedom of religion in this country. I’ll tell you why: that bland phrase, thanks to the popularization of the expression ‘separation of church and state’, has had its meaning warped in the minds of the public.
We need to get back to the words in the Bill of Rights: We must fight for free exercise of religion.
The Constitution is over 100 years old, as Ezra Klein infamously pointed out. Our original copies are faded and hard to read. The language is old, the capitalization is obsolete, and the handwriting looks funny. They used the Germanic ‘long s’ in English back then, leading countless schoolkids to ask “Why does it say Congrefs?”
In short, nobody’s read it. All they know is what the teevee has told them about Thomas Jefferson writing a deist Bible and pushing for the Separation of Church and State. That’s a concept never mentioned in the document, but it’s popularly believed to be in there.
So when we talk about ‘freedom of religion’ as a shorthand for the parts of the First Amendment relating to religion, people are only thinking of the first half. But there are in fact two distinct religious liberties recognized in the First Amendment. Congress is barred from establishing a religion, meaning we would not have a Church of America, in the way that the Church of England was foisted upon the English people, at the expense of the freedom of many Catholics.
But that’s not all! In addition to the prohibition on the establishment of religion, the Congress is also barred from “impeding the free exercise of religion.” That freedom is just as important as any other in the Constitution. If they can take that away, they can take away any of our freedoms.
So when the IRS comes after Christians, don’t talk about freedom of religion. People will imagine we’re talking about the right to think what you want, and read from the Bible you want. No, the fight here isn’t the fight against the establishment of a church. What the radicals want to take away is the right to exercise your religion. They want you to think what you want, but live by what the state tells you.
So say those words every time: “Free exercise of religion.” Language matters for the long, difficult fight ahead.