Narrowing Freedom of Religion

This Washington Post column describes the inconsistency of military prayer with our country’s freedom of religion. In doing so, it also hints at the much broader problem of narrowing individual freedom of religion to accommodate the majority’s desire to celebrate its particular beliefs. Scott Poppleton, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, first says

In my 26 years in the Air Force, I listened to lunch prayers as an exchange cadet in Bancroft Hall at the Naval Academy, and every month I read the chaplain’s Bible quotations next to our commander’s comments in the base paper. I have often asked myself as I listened to the “official prayers”: What essential military need for good order and discipline does this religious program fulfill that outweighs my individual beliefs? What gives the U.S. military the right or the wisdom to preach in uniform?

Excellent questions. The assumption that faith, or prayer, always benefits people has echoes in the story I blogged about a few days ago, wherein President Bush declared that faith based charities deserve more federal funding because they get results, or the story of the Domino’s Pizza founder who decided to create a Catholic town–a plan which drew praise from Jeb Bush. In all these cases, the freedom of religion of the individual is constrained by the institutionalization of one particular religion by the government. While some argue that Presidents, Governors, and military chaplains have their own freedom of religion, Poppleton deftly shows why that is irrelevant to the question:

The First Amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The First Amendment wasn’t meant to allow a military officer or a government institution the free exercise of religion; on the contrary, it was designed to allow the individual to be free of the government — military — established religion. President James Madison thought that paying congressional chaplains out of the public treasury was “a palpable violation of equal rights as well as of constitutional principles.” He went on to say, “Even military chaplains are a mistake, mixing as they do political, military and ecclesiastical authority.”

The founding fathers had a much broader religious freedom in mind, a right that would protect the individual from any interference by the state. To replace this broad ideal with a narrow, technical definition, wherein you are free to believe what you will, but you must listen as we proclaim the majority belief, eviscerates one of the greatest qualities of our nation. It also threatens the religious freedom of all.

This is one instance of a larger trend towards centralization. The theory of the unitary executive is another. In both cases power is being taken from the hands of the people and placed in the hands of the government. Compare the current discourse with this:

Say nothing of my religion. It is known to God and myself alone. Its evidence before the world is to be sought in my life: if it has been honest and dutiful to society the religion which has regulated it cannot be a bad one.

Who was that? Why, Thomas Jefferson, third President of the United States.

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