Religion and the First Amendment: How the Supreme Court Has Misinterpreted the Constitution

That God is being removed more and more from the public forum is not simply a matter of chance. It is part of the secularization process going on in our society. While this process has been underway at least since the dawn of the modern era, it is being especially abetted today by a philosophical and legal viewpoint widespread in American society, that religion should by definition be separated from society, and must be so separated in view of the demands of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.

If both of these positions were true, we should have a serious obstacle to maintaining a transcendent dimension to our lives in the world. But are they true? In this year of the Constitution’s bicentennial, it is appropriate to look at these questions. Inasmuch as the answers to them have so much importance in determining the quality of life in America, as well as our ability to experience the presence of the transcendent, they are worth investigating carefully.


Should Religion Be Separated From Society?

The question is a curious one, since we do not make a point of separating other areas of life, such as politics, business, and the arts. Why religion? Moreover, even if we tried to isolate these areas of thought and life from the operations of society, it would not be possible to do so, for our lives are not made up of separately defined areas. What is impossible regarding other areas of life is impossible also regarding religion.

Since total separation is unrealistic and impossible, should not “limits” be placed upon the influence of each of these areas, preserving their individual identity while preventing them from infringing upon each other or overwhelming the operations of society. But if this is the better alternative, then our position might be stated this way: it is not only impossible but not necessary to separate religion totally from society, although it would be desirable to control the operations of religion so that it retains its own identity and does not engulf other areas.

Let’s carry our argument one step further. It is not even desirable to try to extricate religion from society; if we do so, the public operations of society inevitably lose their transcendent dimension. Without a transcendent dimension to social life, people are unable to see the relevance of faith to their larger lives; faith becomes an optional superstructure in the public forum. As a result, people inevitably begin to explain reality as a matter of course without a relationship to God, and the structures of society take on a non- theistic, and finally an atheistic, configuration. Divorced from its proper relationship to God in the order of creation, the public order does not simply remain neutral to God; it necessarily takes on a configuration of its own in opposition to its divinely-created origins. This leads to atheism, in practice if not in theory.


Church and State: Separate Realities?

To argue for a religious dimension to life in society within proper limits is not necessarily to argue for the involvement of the Church as such in the affairs of the state as such. Theoretically, one might be in favor of the former but be opposed to the latter, for in the latter case we are talking about two distinct institutions having distinct interests, operations, and goals.

Widespread among Americans today is the notion that the First Amendment legislates “separation of church and state.” Yet many do not even know that the words “separation of church and state” are nowhere found in the Constitution, or that it is hotly disputed on the Supreme Court whether the Constitution mandates such a separation, even though the majority on the Court in recent years has so ruled. Also disputed is whether the Court’s understanding of the church-state relationship remains faithful to what the Framers of the First Amendment intended. The question is whether the Court has so interpreted the document as to oppose the intentions of the Framers, and to be in fundamental violation of the human rights granted by the Constitution. We need, therefore, to be clear about what the First Amendment does in fact say, and for that we must investigate the mentality of the men who wrote it.


The Mind of the Founders

Though the Founders were not atheists, they tended not to be deeply religious. Rather, they were religiously-oriented people. Deists or rationalists, they held that what reason provided sufficed as a foundation for a religious commitment. Though many were members of specific Christian sects, they tended to leave aside specifically religious convictions when they moved into the public forum, and concentrated instead on values held in common in all religious expression. Thus, that there is a God who created the world, that human beings are created to live according to a code of moral conduct, and that if they live by that code their final destiny is salvation, were the important notions.

Common agreement was important to the Founders. Most had come from Europe where, from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries, deep religious conflicts prevailed. Many in their families had been objects of persecution, and had come to the New World to avoid this. Europe finally resolved its religious conflicts by establishing national or territorial Christian churches for free expression of different religious convictions. This seemed to be an equitable way to resolve conflicts where there was not hope of resolving them by compromise of conviction. Once these geographical divisions were accepted, there was for the most part peaceful co-existence. Atheism, still considered a social evil, was barely tolerated anywhere, for atheists did not accept the commonly-held conviction that all reality was grounded in a transcendent relationship to God, and that the well-being of society depended upon the fostering of that relationship.

The sevententh and eighteenth century settlers in America brought with them the European solution of specific churches in territories or states. They were initially no more tolerant of each other’s religious views than were their forebears: the “true” religion was one’s own. But gradually they came to realize, in a way far more fundamental than in Europe, that they lived too closely together to profit from war, that they were dependent on each other for survival, and that tolerance of religious views was necessary for the well-being of all. By the end of the eighteenth century, the colonists had largely settled their religious differences peacefully, by a sort of “separate, not equal but, for pragmatic purposes, tolerant” relationship.

It is against this background that one should understand the two principal documents of the American founding, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.


The Declaration of Independence

One sentence, the key second sentence, in the Declaration is crucial to our argument: “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Here the Framers make it clear that there is no need to prove the “Truths” in question, that they are obvious and accepted by all of them, and that the basis for their validity is found in their transcendent dimension. The fact, that they could affirm these truths, in an astonishingly simple yet profound statement, immediately indicates that the writers possessed a common background which enabled them to affirm these truths as self-evident. What was that background?

As Christopher F. Mooney, S.J. describes it:

It was, of course, the existence of God who by his act of creation orients every human creature toward the goals of life. This common dependence of all human beings upon a Creator is what constitutes their equality, and endows them with rights freely to pursue their personal destinies in society. If such rights do indeed belong to men and women precisely as human, then it follows that they are unalienable and hence exempt from all arbitrary government action. Any arbitrary interference with them would clearly be an affront to the dignity of the human person-. However, all this is self-evident only if one first believes in a God from whom we receive in creation our corporate destiny in society. In other words, the self-evidence of which the authors speak was founded upon a prior and transcendent faith experience. (Religion and the American Dream [1977].)

For the Founding Fathers, the equality of human beings stems from their origin in the Creator. What is clear from the key second sentence is not only that the Founders discovered the basis for this assertion in humanity’s common creation by a transcendent being, but also that without that foundation in the transcendent the assertion had no basis. Human beings have a right to life which achieves its greatness in the free pursuit of happiness. The Founders understood the new nation to be built upon the pursuit of happiness for one’s own good and the good of others. But that pursuit was intelligible to them, Mooney has pointed out, only in view of a common “destiny under God” where the will of the people would be “the surest clue to the will of God,” and a God who would ultimately “guide the pursuit itself” toward his divine purposes.


The First Amendment.

The Amendment asserts: “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Establishment Clause holds that Congress shall not legally establish religion in this country; the Free Exercise Clause, that Congress shall do nothing to prevent people from freely exercising their religious convictions. Both statements are deceptively simple; their precise meaning has become a subject of much controversy in recent history, as a result of the Supreme Court’s efforts to rule authoritatively on their meaning. The clauses do involve some ambiguity, and the Founders themselves are not here to provide clarification. They formulated the amendment, however, within the framework of their views on life and the problems they faced. We may, therefore, legitimately draw upon their other writings, as well as on our understanding of the world in which they lived, to aid in the resolution of those ambiguities. But first let us examine the religion clauses for their possible meanings.

Two questions are apt regarding the Establishment Clause: (1) Does it forbid legally favoring religion over non-religion, or only the legal establishment of a specific religion? and (2) Does it refer simply to the obligations of the federal government or to those of the states as well?

The Supreme Court has in recent years asserted that

  • the clause forbids both favoring religion over irreligion and the establishment of one specific religion over another; and that
  • this prohibition must be understood as applying (through the Fourteenth Amendment) to the states as well.

Americans tend to give an almost “sacred,” indisputable authority to the highest court, much as Catholics traditionally do to the pope and to Vatican decisions. Yet the Supreme Court possesses no “infallibility.” The possibility of error clearly arises when one realizes how closely its decisions are often made, many of which, on religious questions, have been decided by a 5-4 vote. Further, considerable disagreement with the Court’s decisions on religious matters exists among legal and constitutional scholars.

I submit that (1) the amendment addresses only the national government and asserts that Congress shall make no law establishing a national religion (though the Fourteenth Amendment may have extended this prohibition later to the states as well); and (2) the amendment addresses only the establishment of a specific religion and not religion as such. It therefore intends that congress shall make no law establishing one religion rather than another as the national religion. It does not address the matter of religion as opposed to irreligion.


The Historical Background

The background to the writing of the First Amendment clarifies that it was intended to prevent the encroachment of the national government upon the rights of the individual, and not to address the question of individual rights against the states. A number of states at that time had established specific religions. Most of the original settlers believed that their religion was the true religion, and each group felt it had its God-given right to establish its own religion in its own territory. Toleration was of each other’s staked-out territory. Our modern concept of toleration, where each is free to choose whatever religious commitment he wishes in any area of the country, the American settlers eventually accepted for pragmatic reasons: because no one religion had hegemony and because toleration was the best way to escape the endless religious wars of the past and thus to live in peace.

Support for this interpretation of the Establishment Clause is found in historical statistics. Robert L. Cord has indicated in his masterful study of the period, Separation of Church and State: Historical Fact and Current Fiction, that certain states had established religions by the time of ratification, and continued to retain established religions for some time after. Nine of the thirteen colonies had established religions in 1775, five still in 1787, and three still as late as 1818. (The First Amendment was ratified in 1791.) Massachusetts had an established religion as late as 1833. State establishment rights do not, therefore, appear to have been influenced by the First Amendment.

Tames Madison proposed the original words of the First Amendment in 1789 in this form: “The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of Conscience be in any manner, or on any pretext, infringed.” Some feared that the word “national” might imply that the government was a national as opposed to a federated government. Madison insisted he had intended only to speak of establishing a national religion, and not to imply thereby that the government was national rather than federated. Others feared that without the term “national,” the extent’ of the meaning of the passage might be widened, and come to hurt the cause of religion in general, or be seen as a support to those who expressed no religious convictions. Madison felt these interpretations would not be made, and so the term was dropped.

Various amendments guaranteeing religious liberty were proposed to the State Constitutional Ratifying Conventions. Virginia and North Carolina both insisted on an amendment guaranteeing “no particular religious sect or society ought to be favored or established, by law, in preference to others.” New York and Rhode Island insisted upon the same. After some three months, the final version was worked out by a joint committee (including Madison) of the House and Senate.

The Framers of the First Amendment wanted to ensure there would be no national establishment of a particular religion, while never intending that the federal government should be neutral toward religion altogether. Indeed, Chief Justice William Rehnquist reminds us that none of the members of the First Congress who debated and ratified the First Amendment

expressed the slightest indication that they thought the language before them from the Select Committee, or the evil to be aimed at, would require that the Government be absolutely neutral as between religion and irreligion. The evil to be aimed at, so far as those who spoke were concerned, appears to have been establishment of a national church, and perhaps the preference of one religious sect over another; but it was definitely not concern about whether the Government might aid all religions evenhandedly.

More likely, it was taken for granted by the Framers that in denying a preferred status to any one religion, the government would be benevolent toward all religions. In the years during and after the enactment of the First Amendment the First Congress and several presidents undertook such benevolent practices toward religion. Congress enacted “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer” and presidents Washington, (John) Adams, and Madison issued Thanksgiving proclamations calling for such a day from 1789 to 1815. Washington’s first “National Thanksgiving Proclamation” states that Thursday, November 26, 1789 “be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, and is, or will be,” and that they render him “our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care,” and that they pray to “the great Lord and Ruler of Nations … to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue” everywhere. Congress also continued to supply government monies for the needs of specific religious groups, Catholic and Protestant, either for education or for the spreading of the Gospel.

Another Supreme Court judge, Joseph Story, has noted that at the time of the writing of the First Amendment,

the general if not the universal sentiment in America was, that Christianity ought to receive encouragement from the State so far as was not incompatible with the private rights of conscience and the freedom of religious worship. An attempt to level all religions, and to make it a matter of state policy to hold all in utter indifference, would have created universal disapprobation, if not universal indignation.

Clearly, the practice of our government in its earliest days was benevolence towards religion; so was the general disposition of the people. But they were not in favor of the divisiveness that followed (in Europe) from the establishment of national religions.

Americans at that time took for granted that to be religiously oriented was the duty of every citizen. Though atheism had begun to be accepted as a respectable view, it was not yet generally held to be so. In any case, it was not held to be so by the writers of the First Amendment. While the authors sought to favor religion, however, they did not wish to deprive any individual’s freedom to abstain from religious expression. In other words, they sought ways to favor the expression of religion, for the well-being of the nation and its citizens, without coercing any individual to accept religion. Persuasion therefore was left to the specific religious sects, while general support was to be a public phenomenon.

The Framers of the Constitution in fact would have been inconsistent had they intended to be neutral toward religion. For in the Declaration of Independence they had stated that religion was a dimension of human life. As we have seen, they accepted as “self-evident” that the fundamental rights of human existence — equality, life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness — were a product of our relationship with the transcendent. For them to have affirmed the foundation of their rights in the transcendent, and then to have affirmed the need to be neutral about such a foundation, would have been incongruous. Such a foundation was the only way to justify the rights of human existence and to secure the well-being of meant society.


Separation of Church and State

In what way, more specifically, does the Establishment Clause separate church and state? Many constitutional scholars argue that the Fourteenth Amendment (ratified in 1868) extended the First Amendment to the individual states as well. If so, it follows that the Bill of Rights forbids on the state level exactly what it forbids on the national level, and no more.

In Everson v. Board of Education (1947) the Supreme Court drew up a comprehensive definition of the separation of church and state that went far beyond the above. The Court now asserted a “high and impregnable” “wall of separation between church and state,” citing these last words from Thomas Jefferson to substantiate a policy of rigid exclusion of national as well as state governments from any activities which might aid religion or religious activities and institutions.

There are serious problems with this decision.  While Jefferson indeed said those words, he did so in the context of a letter to the Danbury Baptists in 1802, eleven years after the debate on, and ratification of, the First Amendment. (Jefferson did not take part in the debate, being out of the country at the time.) He certainly did not intend his phrase to have reference to state government, whose religious rights were not under scrutiny. Authority regarding religious affairs, including the relationship of religion to education, was in the hands of the states. In the words of Robert Cord, Jefferson could only have meant the “wall of separation” “in regard to possible federal action such as a law establishing a national religion or prohibiting the free exercise of worship [since] Congress had no other power in religious matters to curb”  Further, if we assume that Jefferson had intended a greater separation, we are then unable to explain how as president he could have enacted policies which allocated public monies to religious groups — the Roman Catholic Church in one case, the Society of the United Brethren in Pennsylvania in another — for the education and religious activities.

The fact is that the Supreme Court in 1947 misinterpreted Jefferson’s words to have far greater meaning than he had intended. The Court in Everson went so far as to assert that the “wall of separation” meant

at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another….No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa.

Few of the above statements are justifiable interpretations of the First Amendment or of principles operative in earlier American history. The first statement is accurate, as we have shown. The second is ac curate, except for the clause “aid all religions.” Herein lies the Court’s major deviation from the meaning of the First Amendment. As Cord points out, “There is no historical evidence to suggest, however, that the Establishment Clause in any way constitutionally precludes non-discriminatory governmental aid to religion. In fact, the converse is confirmed historically.” As to the third and fourth sentences, Cord states:

Did not the prayers of Congressional Chaplains in the First Congress, which formed the Establishment Clause, constitute “religious activities”? Were their salaries not paid from tax revenues? Are not these same activities, performed in the U.S. Congress by clergymen today, irreconcilable with the Court’s interpretation? How can the clear and direct financial aid to missionaries and the U.S. treaties to build Churches [in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries] be reconciled with the Everson definition?

Unfortunately, the Court continued to base its decisions on the error of historical interpretation made in Everson. Thus in 1948 the majority ruled that public school property could not be used for religious instruction, since this constituted state “aid” to religion. In 1962 the Court held that the Establishment Clause prohibited authorizing prayer in public schools, even when the prayer was non — denominational. In 1963 the Court prohibited reading the Lord’s Prayer or a passage from the Bible at the opening of school, even though participation was voluntary, and once again firmly committed itself neutrality regarding religion. In 1982 the Court upheld a ruling that Louisiana’s law allowing voluntary prayer sessions in public schools was unconstitutional. In 1985 it issued several rulings antagonistic to religion: Connecticut’s law giving employees a right to a day free from work on their chosen Sabbath was declared unconstitutional; “shared time” and community education programs providing classes to non-public school students at public expense in classrooms located in and leased from the nonpublic schools were held to be unconstitutional; New York City’s use of federal funds received under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (a program which had endured for twenty years without problems) to pay salaries of public school employees to teach educationally deprived children from low-income families in parochial schools was declared unconstitutional; and a 1981 Alabama law authorizing a one-minute period of silence in all public schools “for meditation or voluntary prayer” was held to be unconstitutional because the law was motivated for the purpose of advancing religion.

On the other hand, there have been rulings which have tended to favor religion, although the Court justified them on the basis that they did not. For example: the 1984 ruling allowing taxpayers’ money for the display of nativity scenes at Christmas; the 1981 ruling that when a state university allows its facilities to be used by student organizations, religious groups must be included; the 1983 ruling that a Minnesota law which permits parents to claim state tax deductions for children’s school expenses, even if they attend nonpublic schools, is constitutional; and the 1983 ruling validating the use of paid chaplains in state legislatures and in the houses of Congress. Though it is difficult to decipher how such rulings do not favor religion, the Supreme Court justified each of them only because it interpreted them as not doing so, thus’ (at least in its own eyes) standing by its continuing norm of neutrality toward religion.

The Court has constructed a three-part formula by which it tests most laws regarding the state’s relationship to religion: “First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion…; finally, the statue must not foster ‘an excessive government entanglement with religion'” (Lemon v. Kurtzman). Justice William Brennan has more recently added a fourth criterion, that the given statute not create “a serious potential for divisive conflict over the issue of aid to religion.”

As a result of this complicated formula the Court has created serious problems for itself. It has ended up insisting upon a “wall of separation” between church and state, but not an “absolute ” one; it permits state statutes that do not foster “excessive” involvement in religious matters. The Court deliberately did not want to make the separation absolute, because such a separation is deemed not only undesirable, but impossible to enact. But then the question becomes how to determine this “fine line” of separation.

The Court has had an extremely difficult time trying to apply its three (or four) part formula. Chief Justice Rehnquist has pointed out the extremely circuitous and conflicting route the Court has taken in trying to measure up to these complicated criteria, which have caused it to end with “hopelessly divided pluralities.” Its “historically faulty doctrine” has “proven all but useless as a guide to sound constitutional adjudication” and “should be frankly and explicitly abandoned.”


Free Exercise Clause Violated

Former Chief Justice Warren Burger has concluded that the Court’s decisions have now come to the point where they may no longer be interpreted as neutral, but rather as manifesting “hostility toward religion.” His point introduces a new dimension to the problem. Even if it were granted that the First Amendment calls for “neutrality” toward religion, is such a stance possible for the state? I have already argued it is not. It is possible to create legislation that favors religion or that is antagonistic to religion, but legislation by its very nature must do one or the other. The Court’s legislation has, for example, permitted tax exemptions for parents who send their children to parochial schools. This may seem “neutral” legislation to the Court, but in fact it benefits Catholic families by providing them financial assistance which supports the continuing existence of parochial schools. Students who receive free bus transportation to parochial schools are thereby supported in their efforts to receive a Catholic education. A nativity scene is a Christian religious presentation on public display, whether it has become part of the secular holiday spirit or not. On the other hand, legislation which prevents public school students from hearing prayer in school is not neutral toward religion, because it deprives them of the free exercise of their religion. Moreover, legislation which removes discussion of the religious from consideration of values in the classroom gives priority to the secular non-religious or it religious perspective on such questions, and thus is biased in favor of the unreligious. In this manner, such legislation not only is hostile to religion, but, ironically, violates the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, the very principle that the Supreme Court is supposedly trying to uphold.


Coercion of Religion?

The Court, unfortunately, has chosen to make its main matter of concern no coercion of religion upon students rather than the right to free exercise of religion. The problem of coercion enters into the picture in the case of elementary and secondary school children, whereas it is not a factor on the college or university level. Thus the Court is able to distinguish the situation of elementary and secondary schools from all other situations. It allows meetings for religious purposes in state universities, but the public expression of prayer or Bible readings in elementary and secondary schools is not permitted; such activity would be coercive upon “impressionable young minds.”

The complexity and intriguing nature of the problem begins to appear when one examines this curious matter of coercion. While coercion of various sorts is necessarily and inevitably injected into the classroom by its very nature as an enclosed, forced environment for educational purposes, the Supreme Court seems troubled by the presence of coercion especially when it comes to matters religious. But students are forced to go to school until age 16; they are forced to accept an education in what are considered essential tools for knowledge, communication, and trade, math, and science. They must accept basic disciplinary structures, or if not, disciplinary consequences, even to the point of being dismissed; they are sometimes even forced to be involved in extracurricular activities, seen as a desirable part of the education of a well-rounded person. But the Court forbids them to have formal prayer presented or suggested to them, even for voluntary consideration, lest coercion be implied. Two questions are in order: why is religious expression not a part of the development of a well-rounded person (and who makes that decision), and why this extreme fear regarding religious matters, with little or none regarding other coerced matters?

Though the answer given by the Court invokes the demands of the First Amendment, this is hard to substantiate. Practically all would agree that the Framers of the First Amendment could not even have had public school education in mind when they constructed that amendment, since practically all education at that time was private, and, indeed, religiously sponsored. One must, then, argue at best that the Court’s is a valid interpretation of the intentions of the Framers, updated to today’s needs. Though some in the Reagan Administration might argue that the Supreme Court has no right to exceed the literal meaning of the amendment as understood and intended by those who wrote it, few constitutional scholars hold such a narrow position. Under such a ruling, no law could ever evolve and would become useless in a short time. The teachings of Christ might not even be allowed to survive to this day by such rulings, for Jesus could surely not have known which situations would have arisen 2000 years later. The problem, then, is not so much that the Supreme Court should not be allowed to interpret the Constitution according to the needs and situations of today, but that they should not, in doing so, be allowed to create law that is not a legitimate interpretation of the Constitution, or even worse, create law that so deviates from the meaning of the Constitution as to violate, contradict, or thwart the original intention. Many scholars would argue in this case that the Court is doing just that.

The Free Exercise Clause prohibits the Congress from interfering with the free exercise of religion. The Framers recognized the right of the individual to be free in the expression of his or her religious convictions. They held such a right was necessary, if there was truly to be a society founded on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But they also recognized the need of the social order for the free exercise of religion; they knew, as Christopher Mooney points out, that “the well-being of society depended upon a body of shared religious beliefs — the nature of man, his place in the cosmos, his destiny, and his conduct toward his fellowmen.” These statesmen believed the churches were important to the well-being of society and that they “should flourish in America because … all churches held and taught in common the ‘essentials of every religion,’ and that these essentials were not only relevant but vital for the health of the nation.” Thus, the founders “wanted to formulate a principle that would guarantee the participation of all churches in the common social unity of the republic” for the sake of preserving the well-being of the republic, while at the same time not infringing on those religious tenets distinctive to each.

It is this Free Exercise Clause which the Supreme Court has violated by its conception of neutrality. Neutrality implies impartiality, non-involvement, or disinterest in sides or outcomes. But the Free Exercise Clause was not written to establish impartiality towards religion; rather, it was intended to favor religion, though not one rather than another, as an ingredient important to the well-being of the individual and of the entire fabric of society. The Framers would have understood such neutrality as in fact undermining that well-being and would have opposed it. They wanted public space to be free and broad enough to all religions to flourish. The state was not to sanction or adhere to any specific religion in such a way that its actions would be detrimental to the others and lead to the instability previously seen in Europe. But the state was, indeed, to sanction the religious dimension of life as the sole ultimate guarantee of the well-being of society. The Supreme Court, by removing the public elementary and secondary classroom from the realm of the free exercise of religion, has in fact created a public delimitation of the free exercise of religion, and thereby unconstitutionally sought to remove the free exercise of religion from the public domain. Not only, then, is this a deprivation of the rights granted to Americans by the First Amendment, it also sends signals contrary to its intention by implying that religion is a purely private matter and has no public relevance.

A world which relegates religion to the private sphere does not in fact remain neutral toward religion, but inevitably gives preferential treatment to non-religious viewpoints. As religion is removed more and more from life in the public world, non-religiously-oriented thinking increasingly assumes dominance in the explanation of public policy and in the resolution of public issues. The divorce of religion from society inevitably makes the world unreceptive to religious discussion and ultimately antagonistic to religious expression.

Christians, too, will increasingly assume a secular mentality in their own understanding of their lives in the world and in the resolution of its problems. That consequence seems already to have taken place, inasmuch as Christians seek the goals and values of the secular world, such as money and power, just as much as non-Christians, and operate in the public forum by the same values as the secular world. Christians often seem no more eager to redress injustices than the most self-centered individualist. They seem not so much concerned to fulfill the ideals of Christ’s teachings as to succeed in the world by purely human standards.

To return to our point of departure: as the Declaration of Independence makes so clear, fundamental human values are rooted in the human being’s relationship to the transcendent; without that relationship, there is no ultimate basis for establishing or justifying human values. The loss of the transcendental dimension of life, therefore, is not simply destructive to the life of the Church, because it increasingly secularizes the world in which Christians live and thereby imposes a secularizing force upon them; it also destroys the basis for fundamental human values in general, and thereby leads to a breakdown of order and harmony of life in society. As Americans and as Catholics, we must seek to return the transcendent to the public forum, or we are destined to see a movement toward secularization even more destructive than what we have known up to now.


Martin R. Tripole, S.J. is Professor Emeritus of Theology at St. Joseph's University.

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