Religion and The Declaration: A Point of Clarification

Politics will have to be a topic sometime soon.  For now, a reflection on religion:

Legendary football coach Vince Lombardi is famous for his quote:  “There are three things that are important to every man in this locker room.  His God, his family, and the Green Bay Packers.  In that order.”   The nation doesn’t even make it on to that list, but God, each player’s God, came first.   

America was founded on a creed, a holding of truths  – of unalienable rights to “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,” and that government exists to secure those rights.  Happiness, of course, is meant in the broad sense, and almost all of us would say that God defines its highest spiritual content – even most atheists refer to something that takes that role.  

Government, then, exists in great part to protect every persons’ right to their religion.  And, per Lombardi, God comes first.  This nation, per our conception in 1776, affirms my right to my pursuit.  The first clause of the Bill of Rights places any person’s religious belief beyond the power of the state.  

Of course the state will be pulled into disputes among its citizens.  But it is crucial that questions of religious belief and civic order be kept separate.  If a bakery wishes, due to the owners’ religious creed, to refuse service to a gay couple looking for a wedding cake, there are two separate questions involved.  The bakers’ beliefs are beyond any jurisdiction.  The question of discrimination is a matter of civic boundaries.  The specific dispute poses a hard decision that the state’s machinery may have to adjudicate.  But any ruling only affects a particular case of civic boundaries.  The discourse around that issue need not – and so must not – touch on the religious content of anyone’s beliefs.  

Society does need people to give up some portion of our liberties, for a basic order that anyone needs, to live in their rightful pursuits.  This social contract will not always accommodate every action I would take in the temporal world.  Such is the sacrifice I make for the larger principle of freedom, for myself and for all of us.  And state judgements at the edges of civic boundaries among us do not revoke my unalienable rights.  They may penalize or prohibit some actions but no one has the right or power to restrict my belief.  Anyone who would turn a civic dispute into an argument over the content of anyone’s belief, particularly to lay claim to the power of the state, enmeshes state power in questions of belief, and reduces religion to an issue of politics.  This entanglement contravenes the founding creed.  It also contradicts the thought of John Locke, who “argued for a sharp separation between the church, with its spiritual aims, and the state, whose purposes were confined to earthly affairs.”  “My” pursuit of my God comes first and stands apart from, and ahead of, matters of state.  Each of us rightly pursues that ultimate happiness by their own conscience.  That right is unalienable and self-evident.  

To be clear, America is a religious nation – Christian for the Christian, Scientific Pantheist for the Scientific Pantheist, something else for an atheist as they conceive their ultimate pursuits.  It is a religious nation not through any public religion but because America puts each of us first, and each of us has an overriding right to follow God as best “I” know.  Outside of that inviolable rights, the measures by which a civic order manages itself mere management, dedicated only to secure the unalienable rights in the nasty world.


One response to “Religion and The Declaration: A Point of Clarification”

  1. A very thoughtful piece…And I love the way it starts with Vince Lombardi 🙂

    On this end, I’ve often found myself pondering the distinction between Faith and Religion. In our secular world, Religion is frequently viewed as a “divider”, in contrast to Faith which has so much potential to “unite” us as a Common Conviction…

    My one deep thought of the day!



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