Teaching About Religion
in support of civic pluralism
Believers Should Remember "Soul Liberty,"
Respect Rights of Non-believers
By Charles C. Haynes
Senior Scholar, First Amendment Center
Source: Haynes, Charles C. "Inside the First Amendment"—01.06.02
Believers should remember "soul liberty," respect rights of
non-believers. Arlington, Virginia: Freedom Forum First Amendment
[ Full text of article is placed on this Web resource with author permission.]
Have the tragic events of Sept. 11 made Americans more tolerant of
religious expression in public life but less tolerant of the nonreligious?
Judging from the mail I’m getting, the answer may be "yes." Americans with
no religious preference (designated by pollsters as the "religious nones")
feel increasingly isolated and defensive about the joining of "God and
country" in ceremonies from Yankee Stadium to the local school. And they’re
more and more angry about what they see as government attempts to
promote religion throughout the culture.
These Americans — many of whom identify themselves as atheists or
"freethinkers"—are speaking out in growing numbers. A parent in New York
complains that "God Bless America" is the only patriotic song repeatedly
sung at her son’s school in response to Sept. 11 (and the school instructs
the kids to recite the little-known preamble calling people to "raise our
voices in solemn prayer"). A citizen in Ohio is upset because his town bans
all "unattended private displays," but puts up a holiday display with religious
symbols. A woman in Georgia claims that judges in her town appoint jurors
to lead the court in prayer. And the list goes on.
What I find particularly unsettling about these stories are the reports of
harassment that accompany them. "My son and I have become targets of
countless acts of hatred and abuse," writes one mother. "My family received
many harassing and threatening phone calls," writes another man.
What’s going on here? It’s one thing to disagree about how high the wall
should be between church and state. But it’s another to attack people who
dare to challenge the actions of government officials.
The ugly truth is that atheists are easy targets in our society. In a nation
where religious commitment (or the appearance of religious commitment)
seems to be an informal requirement for public office, it’s understandable
that many atheists feel under siege.
Of course, atheists can sometimes be their own worst enemy. The
sometimes-abrasive Madalyn Murray O'Hair — portrayed for decades in the
media as the sole voice of atheism — was probably not the best
spokesperson for her cause. And these days some "freedom from religion"
folks appear ready to file a lawsuit every time religion pops up in the public
It would help matters if people on all sides could keep two civic principles in
mind. First and foremost, the First Amendment religion clauses aren’t just for
the religious. The First Amendment protects the religious liberty of everyone
— people of all faiths and people who profess no religious faith.
And second, government coercion in matters of faith—whether in the
classroom or in the courtroom—violates liberty of conscience, harms
authentic religion and divides our communities. The public square of
America should be a place where all of us— religious and nonreligious—are
free to persuade one another to our view. But it should not be a place where
any of us—religious or nonreligious—uses the engine of government to
impose our view.
Before I get letters (and I will) informing me that we are a "Christian nation"
where Christian faith should be privileged (and the First Amendment doesn’t
really separate church from state), let me remind readers of the Christian
roots of the American arrangement in religious liberty for all people.
It was that courageous Christian minister, Roger Williams, who first insisted
that God created every person with "soul liberty"—the freedom to choose for
or against God. And therefore government must never get involved in
matters of faith. William’s argued that state-imposed religion doesn’t
advance true faith; it only leads to either hypocritical religious people or
When Williams founded Rhode Island nearly four centuries ago, he insisted
on freedom of conscience for everyone — including, for the first time in
history, atheists. To do less, Williams believed, would be profoundly
Full liberty of conscience wasn’t popular then (the clergy of New Amsterdam
called Rhode Island the "sewer of New England"), and it’s not popular with
many Americans today. But Williams prevailed. His religious commitment to
soul liberty eventually became our civic commitment to religious liberty as
embodied in the principles of the First Amendment.
Williams was right. Religious liberty—freedom of conscience—is a precious
fundamental and inalienable right for everyone. In the words of the
Williamsburg Charter: "A society is only as just and free as it is respectful of
this right for its smallest minorities and least popular communities."
Your questions and comments are welcome. Write to: Charles Haynes The Freedom
Forum First Amendment Center, 1101 Wilson Blvd. Arlington, VA 22209
Coercion in matters of faith ...violates liberty of conscience,
harms authentic religion and divides our communities.