Freedom is Merely Privilege Extended, Unless Enjoyed by One & All

Riding the crest of a new tide of Islamophobia, NRO’s The Corner and Tennessee’s Lieutenant Governor, Ron Ramsey, have settled on the theory that Islam isn’t a religion — it’s a cult, or a way of life, or some other construct of lesser dignity, therefore not entitled to First Amendment protection. This is a cutesy way of translating subjective disapproval and hatred into an objective-sounding argument.

I need hardly add, too, that it doesn’t hold together, legally: the First Amendment definition of “religion” is almost intolerably broad (Scientology qualifies. Ugh.). The Supreme Court’s first succinct statement of religious freedom in America defined the concept’s reach quite broadly, as reaching all matters “of opinion”:

[T]o suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion, and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy which at once destroys all religious liberty.

Reynolds v. U.S., 98 U.S. 145, 163 (1878) (quoting early, pre-independence Virginia lawmakers); see also id. at 164 (summarizing) (“Congress was deprived of all legislative power over mere opinion, but was left free to reach actions which were in violation of social duties or subversive of good order.”).

By trying to erode the definition of religious freedom to exclude disfavored sects on that basis alone, the new right is attempting something truly unprecedented: the rolling-back of a concept that is definitional to the American experience, and our shared history. We might term this as something broader: the law should vest no individual with an advantage, or privilege, merely due to the fortune of his birth. There is no greater distinction between republicanism and pre-Enlightenment theocracy than the application of this principle to religious liberty. How strange to see that line blurred.



  1. Hasn’t that line always been blurred in practice in certain circles, though, e.g. between “Know Nothing” nativism and anti-Catholicism for a great part of the 19th century? Even as late as 1960’s there were people who would be happy to see “them damn Catholics” thrown back in the Atlantic, or who fully expected that JFK would turn the country over to the Pope once elected. I’d say that sort of tension is just as “definitional to the American experience” as the ideals of republicanism and religious plurality.

  2. They keep telling me christianity isn’t a religion either-it’s a relationship and a worldview. Guess they won’t apply the same standard though.

  3. Steve Jeffers · ·

    It is very telling that the same people who warn most vocally about the risk of Shariah law being imposed on America are the ones who want to impose their own religion’s version of it.

    But it’s a basic double standard. Bill O’Reilly’s grandfather was an illegal immigrant, who came to the USA in the 1890s – or, to put it another way *every single* African-American who’s descended from a slave has been American for at least two generations more.

    And, again, social security – the sixtysomethings are the ones that benefited most from ‘state handouts’, they’ve done so their entire lives, now they seek to shrink social security … although somehow Medicare and state pensions are excluded from that.

    As for the Founders, a simple question. I’ll give you one second to answer, you won’t need the whole second: who would Thomas Paine like best, Glenn Beck or Richard Dawkins?

    The point of the Constitution was to let people that babble away on Fox have their say, but not have their way. The whole point was to protect the rest of us from them, and them from us.

    1. who would Thomas Paine like best, Glenn Beck or Richard Dawkins?

      Paine is far from representative of “the Founders”, though, no more than any other one individual could be.

      But joining the grand tradition of turning “the Founders” into mouthpieces for my own opinions, I’m pretty sure that the majority of them would not have cared at all for either of those two gentlemen.

      1. Steve Jeffers · ·

        Paine’s not typical, but he’s the one Beck invokes most often.

  4. In the vein of Founders-as-mouthpieces and Beck’s love affair with a reinvented Thomas Paine (seriously, did he ever try to read The Age of Reason or Agrarian Justice?) I highly recommend everyone read’s 8 Historic Symbols that mean the opposite of what you think.

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