“Religious liberty—the freedom to worship as one chooses, or not to worship—is a central element of the American creed.” And from there “Newsweek” editor Jon Meacham’s column in this week’s issue lays out the argument—straight down the middle—that the separation of church and state is there for the benefit of both:
The civil and legal cases against religious coercion are well known: human freedom extends to one’s conscience, and by abolishing religious tests for office or mandated observances, Americans have successfully created a climate—a free market, if you will—in which religion can take its stand in the culture and in the country without particular help or harm from the government.
There is a religious case against state involvement with matters of faith, too. Long before Thomas Jefferson, Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, called for a "hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world," believing, with the Psalmist, that human beings were not to put their trust in princes. The principalities and powers of a fallen world represented and still represent a corrupting threat to religion: too many rulers have used faith to justify and excuse all manner of evil.
Meacham lines up George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson on the side of the angels in making the case against calling the United States a Christian nation, but a nation where all are free to believe (or not) as they choose. I know this irks many who see it their duty to evangelize or who misunderstand our history, but that makes it no less true.
Yes, many of the Founders were believing, observant Christians. But to think of them as apostles in knee breeches or as passionate evangelicals is a profound misreading of the past. In many ways their most wondrous legacy was creating the foundations of a culture of religious diversity in which the secular and the religious could live in harmony
As Americans we each have the right to practice a faith of our choosing; why isn’t that good enough?