America needs to prepare for a major governmental assault on religious liberty in the wake of the Supreme Court’s marriage ruling, but those standing against the tide can find plenty of inspiration from those who pioneered the concept of religious freedom at the American founding.
Michael Farris is co-founder of the Home School Legal Defense Association and author of “The History of Religious Liberty.” The book details the fierce fight for the religious freedom provisions that eventually emerged in the First Amendment to the Constitution.
Farris said history is critical to understand in the wake of the marriage decision and the brand new threats to liberty being advocated on the political left.
The day after the Obergefell v. Hodges decision was handed down, Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisc., told MSNBC she believed religious liberty was a much narrower concept than has been understood for centuries. “Certainly the First Amendment says that in institutions of faith that there is absolute power to, you know, to observe deeply held religious beliefs,” Baldwin said. “But I don’t think it extends far beyond that. We’ve seen the set of arguments play out in issues such as access to contraception.”
She added, “Should it be the individual pharmacist whose religious beliefs guides whether a prescription is filled? In this context, they’re talking about expanding this far beyond our churches and synagogues to businesses and individuals across this country. I think there are clear limits that have been set in other contexts, and we ought to abide by those in this new context across America.”
Michael Farris’ “History of Religious Liberty” is a sweeping literary work that passionately traces the epic history of religious liberty across three centuries, from the turbulent days of medieval Europe to colonial America and the birth pangs of a new nation.
Farris is dumbfounded at Baldwin’s reading of the First Amendment. “The ignorance of members of Congress and the U.S. Senate never ceases to baffle me. How did they get there in the first place without taking a basic civics course? Or maybe they have and they just don’t believe it,” Farris said. “This senator has just simply walked away from not only the text of the Constitution and the meaning of the Constitution but our great American traditions.”
In fact, Farris believes Baldwin’s concept of religious liberty is almost completely backward. “It is an institutional right,” he said. “Churches have religious freedom, but it’s primarily an individual right. The Supreme Court – back in the day when it used to think straight – would say things like it’s not up to the government or the courts to determine which individual within a faith has correctly understood the demands of that faith. You’re allowed to go your own way.”
In response to the court decision, Govs. Greg Abbott, R-Texas, and Sam Brownback, R-Kansas, have announced their states will vigorously protect the religious liberty of the people. Farris applauds the efforts but warns those policies won’t stop all government intrusion into Americans’ lives or the practices of religious institutions. “That’s a good thing. It limits the areas where a church or a school can expect an attack. But a Christian college residing in one of those states can still expect an attack from the IRS or from the accrediting association or from the U.S. Department of Education if they don’t go along with the federal edicts on this,” said Farris, who warned schools and churches would be wise to protect themselves legally now given the dire warnings offered in the dissents to the Obergefell decision. “We have four justices on the Supreme Court effectively warning all the religious institutions, ‘You better do something about this because trouble’s coming.’ I don’t think that’s an idle speculation,” he said. “That’s about as strong of a warning from about as high a source as you can possibly get.”
In “The History of Religious Freedom,” Farris details the long, unlikely triumph of religious freedom in America’s founding. Just as in Europe, colonial America witnesses various denominations cracking down on others.
Modern history textbooks credit enlightenment thinking for the emergence of religious liberty in America. To Farris, that’s academic fantasy, and true scholars have actually debunked that notion. “It’s simply not true,” he said. “I lay out the historical evidence in great detail. One Harvard historian around the 1920s said the evidence that people who are indifferent to religion, that basically is the enlightenment crowd, were the cause of religious liberty is an unsustainable argument. There is simply no evidence for that point.” He added, “It was people who cared very deeply. It was grassroots kinds of Christians fighting establishment kind of Christians who gave us religious liberty for everybody. The battle for religious liberty wasn’t settled on the Mayflower.”
Protections for the free exercise of religion were anything but guaranteed in America. Farris said the colonial government of Virginia teamed with the Anglican Church to punish dissenters as late as the 1770s. In 1776, Virginia’s Declaration of Rights became the first declaration of religious liberty anywhere in the world.
In 1789, Congress approved the Bill of Rights and sent them to the states for approval. That same year, the French Revolution unfolded. The upheaval in the two countries has long been compared, especially as the U.S. moved forward with stability and France subsequently endured the Reign of Terror and the Napoleonic era.
Farris said there are key reasons for the very different results of revolutions rooted in freedom, including America’s much deeper respect for personal religious liberty and vastly different views about the nature of man.
“France believed that man was perfectable and that we could create our own utopia, whereas the American Revolution followed the Christian biblical idea that all men are sinners and that’s why you needed limited government, because you can’t trust any man in government to rule faithfully forever,” he explained.
According to Farris, the greatest parallel between the colonial struggle for religious freedom and today’s cultural battles is where the battle lines are drawn. Religious freedom was not championed by the ruling class. “It was a monumental battle,” he said. “It was the common people, who believed in Jesus, who believed the Bible was the authority for their faith and their life, who really fought the war and won. Many of them paid with their lives.”
Farris said the founding generation should serve as inspiration for the religious freedom fights of this century.
“Common people armed with bravery and faith in God can turn anything around,” he said. “I’ve seen it in my own life through the homeschooling movement. We were outnumbered and outgunned by the teachers’ unions day after day after day. We won battle after battle after battle because (we were) common people armed with the Constitution of the United States and belief in the Word of God.”