Having lived most of my life deep in the Bible Belt, I know perfectly well that some Christians believe the First Amendment's protection for religious freedom applies to them alone.
So I'm not terribly surprised that last month, right-wing theocrat and anti-gay activist Bryan Fischer proclaimed the amendment's purpose "was to protect the free exercise of the Christian faith. It wasn't about protecting anything else. They weren't providing any cover or shelter for the free exercise of Islam or even Judaism or even atheism."
Evidence offered? Well, the Founders were all Christians, and obviously Christians wouldn't support free exercise of anything that wasn't Christianity. Case closed. Well, if you ignore Jefferson's writing about separating church and state. Or Washington writing to a Jewish congregation to say that in the new nation, "all possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship." Or that some of the Founders were not at all Christian by the religious right's standards; Jefferson's version of the Bible, for instance, eliminated all supernatural elements.
And then there's the actual text of the amendment which says nothing about Christianity. If the drafters wanted it to apply only to Christian sects, they could certainly have said so. They didn't.
Fischer's theory says more about Fischer than about the Founders. He can't conceive of treating other views equally ' he said this month that evolutionists should be disqualified from public office ' so he can't imagine the Founders doing any better. He also doesn't realize they were a lot smarter than he is. His view of the First Amendment would be a disaster for Christians and non-Christians alike.
The drawbacks for other religions are obvious. Some Americans believe Muslims have no right to build mosques and atheists who don't like Christianity should just leave the country
. The first President Bush said he didn't think atheists were real citizens of a nation "under God." If there's no protection for non-Christians, there's nothing to stop Fischer and his ilk from turning those attitudes into law.
I'm sure Fischer envisions that outcome as a triumph for Christianity, but he's fooling himself. If only Christians have religious freedom, then the government must somehow define who qualifies as Christian. That's going to get ugly very fast.
Take Mormons. They believe in Jesus Christ as their Savior, but I know plenty of Christians who consider them a cult or even devil-worshippers.
Catholics? Some of my friends in high school told me they'd only "become Christian" when they converted from Catholic to Protestant. And there are still Catholics who believe the Church is the only true Christian church, and there's no salvation outside it.
Some Christians believe speaking in tongues is a sign of God's grace. Other Christians believe it's demonic possession and congregations that practice it are damned.
Pat Robertson says the Methodist Church has "the spirit of Antichrist." Rick Santorum
says liberal churches aren't really Christian because Christians can't be liberal. Fischer doesn't believe churches that accept homosexuality are biblical.
Under the Founder's First Amendment, the government and the courts don't have to define true Christianity because it's irrelevant: everyone of every faith has equal rights to worship.
Charles Colson has many different sides: Watergate-era felon, brilliant Republican strategist, towering evangelist and prisoner advocate. At nearly 80 years old, he is working furiously to replenish what he sees as the vanishing of true Christianity from this country. | Photo: |
Under Fischer's First Amendment, it's very relevant. We have lawsuits and government debates over religious freedom all the time. If religious freedom only applies to Christians, then the outcome of many of those debates is going to hinge over which churches and sects are "really" Christian and therefore protected. So who decides? How? Does Fischer want secular judges issuing rulings defining the essential tenets of Christianity? Or should it be a government panel, set up to judge errors in theology?
My guess? When Fischer says only Christians get freedom of religion, he's using the time-honored standard: his beliefs are true Christianity and anyone who disagrees with him isn't. Of course, the people he considers false Christians may think the same of him. Which sect gets freedom of religion will depend on which sect holds the levers of power. Even a cursory look at Christian history shows that's never worked well.
In theory it might be possible to come up with a broad government standard defining Christianity ("Everyone who believes Jesus Christ is the Savior is a Christian."). In practice, Christians have fallen out and often gone to war to get a more detailed definition. Often it's not just about defining truth, it's about excluding other Christians from power. If Fischer can define pro-gay churches as non-Christian, for instance, that gives him more power to push his anti-gay agenda.
A nation that guarantees religious freedom for all is a much better place than a nation that restricts it to a few. It's unfortunate that Fischer and many others see it the opposite way around.