Home > Politics and Society > Freedom of Religion in Politics

Freedom of Religion in Politics

Between the health care bill passed by the Obama Administration and the Chick-Fil-A scandal (neither of which I’m actually going to talk about at length save passing references), there’s a term in its various forms that gets thrown around a lot: “Freedom of religion”. Religious conservatives have decried the health care bill – which will legally mandate all employers, including those with religious beliefs, to provide birth control as part of their insurance coverage to their female employees, which some consider to be in violation of their religious beliefs – as an infringement of their religious freedoms. The rhetoric has gotten awfully similar, such as from Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi:

Government has no business forcing religious institutions and individuals to violate their sincerely held beliefs. This lawsuit is about protecting religious liberty and the rights of conscience, our most basic freedoms as Americans.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was more eloquent, but no less obvious:

Today’s proposal continues to involve needless government intrusion in the internal governance of religious institutions, and to threaten government coercion of religious people and groups to violate their most deploy held convictions.

Conservatives decry the government of trying to take away their freedom. And media headlines and journalist catchphrases would have you believe that there is some kind of war against religious freedom, that the federal government in the United States is trying to outlaw religion, to force people to recant their beliefs, to make it increasingly difficult to believe in religion.

Alas, the truth is much more complicated, but the answer boils down to several points: 1) The misinterpretation of what “freedom of religion” means, and 2) more than two centuries of violations of the Constitution that goes right up from the government and down to the people.


I’m going to start with a disclaimer to put my position into perspective. First, yes, I’m agnostic. I openly accept that I have no means to prove or disprove the existence of any deity or deities, I believe that no one but a deity or deities can prove their own existence (because they certainly can’t disprove their own existence if they do not exist), and I believe the question is somewhat irrelevant to me because I have no proof and matters of the divine do not affect the world I currently live in (that I know of or can prove). I grew up to agnostic parents (although my mother has turned religious in recent years) who made it clear as a child that I am within my rights and the acceptance of the family to worship any religion I wished so long as I respected my parents and everyone else I had to deal with. Religion didn’t become part of my life, however, until I went to a Lutheran private school for the seventh and eighth grades. Curious about Christianity and eager to discover why it was the most popular religion in the world, I was sorely disappointed when the answers offered to me by men and women decades my senior and supposedly much more experienced essentially devolved down to flawed circular logic. It did not help that I was punished for “asking too many questions”.

Contrary to what one might suspect given my experiences, however, I have never entirely adopted atheism – the belief that there are no gods – outright, although my experiences have caused me to be wary about the ideas of religion (or, more specifically, organized religion). I do not believe any of our sciences – which has at least disproved most of the Book of Genesis, such as the creation of the universe as well as the story of Adam and Eve – actually state that “gods do not exist”. The question of whether or not deities exist is currently beyond the reach of our understanding of the laws in this universe, and beyond that, I find it silly to imagine that we’re entirely alone in a universe so unimaginably, indescribably massive. I do not have strong views against spirituality – which I broadly define as faith in that the divine exists – as much as I’m distasteful towards religion – an organized sociopolitical institution dedicated to the upholding of tenets revolving around spirituality.


I’m also going to start with a preface, which will sound a little weird, but is actually entirely relevant to the discussion at hand, I assure you: I believe aliens exist. I believe that the universe is a massive place, and it flies in the face of logic that there isn’t intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. I understand this is not a popular stance with some of the religious, who maintain that life can only be created by a divine being, and that we are special in that said divine being created only us (well, at least in terms of the “intelligent life” department, but that’s backtracking on part of organized religion following the discovery of bacteria on Mars). They tell me that abiogenesis – the natural formation of life – is not possible without a divine being, and even if it is, it’s a one-in-a-million, or one-in-a-billion, or even one-in-a-trillion chance, because – to them – Earth is this special planet that has all the unique conditions that support life. This actually helps my argument very much (or at least convinces me that these people are not very good at math and astrophysics), because even if we take the most conservative possibility, “one-in-a-trillion” (that’s a 1 followed by twelve 0’s), if we take into account that the observable universe has anywhere between ten sextillion (that’s a 1 followed by twenty-two 0’s) to a septillion stars (that’s a 1 followed by twenty-four 0’s), each having a “one-in-a-trillion” chance to possess a planet with intelligent life. This means that there would be, at the very least, ten billion different forms of intelligent life in the observable universe. And, yes, I did say “observable universe”; the Big Bang has the universe expanding faster than the speed of light, meaning there are stars and entire celestial bodies out there with planets that potentially support life that we simply cannot see because its light has not reached Earth yet (and possibly never will).

Now, despite this mathematical probability, I will be the first to admit that I have absolutely zero proof for this. Yes, the odds are completely in my favor, but there is absolutely no material evidence that intelligent life beyond Earth exists (and if Area 51 or Roswell ever had proof, the government isn’t telling). I have nothing to support my belief other than statistical likelihood, as well as the likelihood that I’ll have a nerdgasm if alien spaceships (of peace, we hope) suddenly begin appearing in orbit. I accept that this is, for me, the closest thing to “faith” I have had, something I believe in despite having no proof of. This, of course, leads up to the obvious question…

The Obvious Question

“Why is it okay for non-religious people to express belief in aliens, but not okay for religious people to express their belief in deities?”

First off, this question is an oversimplification of the issue. Assuming you are currently reading this from a country that guarantees your religious freedom, the issue is not about allowing or disallowing your expression of belief, and I will defend your right to say it (as long as, of course, it doesn’t go into the territory of hate speech, which is illegal in most countries). You should not be criticized for expressing your beliefs (but you must be ready to accept criticism for your beliefs, not because you expressed them). I should be allowed to say “I believe in aliens”, and then be ready to defend my point against people who do not believe it. Christians should be allowed to say “I believe in God”, and then be ready to defend their point against people who do not believe in Christianity. But the issue goes beyond mere “expression of belief”, and to do this, I’m going to bring up a hypothetical scenario.

Remember how I said I believed in aliens and how likely they are to exist? This is not a rare belief; many people believe that intelligent aliens exist. And if there are ten billion different alien races in the universe (again, using that conservative “one-in-a-trillion” chance formula), it means that roughly half of them – five billion – will be more technologically advanced than us. And if we were to make a ridiculous simplification of morality simply because I don’t want to drag on this hypothetical scenario for longer than it needs to be, then half that number – two hundred fifty million aliens – may attack Earth one day. (I recognize this is an absolutely silly formula to arrive at an arbitrary number, but – again – this is highly beside the point.) Recognizing the possibility that we might, at any time, be attacked by two hundred fifty million different alien races, the UN passes a legally-binding resolution (which they have no power to in real life, but – again – hypothetical scenario) and gets every country to contribute trillions of dollars (actually, probably more by several orders of magnitudes) to construct a planetary defense network that includes several massive arrays of sci-fi cannons and several space fleets.

Most of you have most likely arrived at the same conclusion I did: This is ridiculous. We have no proof aliens exist, we’ve never run across one, we don’t know if they have faster-than-light technology, we don’t know if they’ll attack, we don’t know what their military doctrine is like, we don’t know what they can do within their technological levels. And despite this, the UN has just (hypothetically, so please don’t freak out and think this really happened) passed a political law to ensure the construction a massive defense array of questionable usefulness against an enemy we aren’t even sure exists.

…Wait, why does this somehow sound a little familiar?

Putting Things Into Perspective

Let’s get the obvious out of the way first: There is zero proof that any deities exist, or any spiritual beliefs are valid. Any science that claims otherwise at the moment is about as valid as MKUltra, simply because we lack any scientific level of advancement that allows us to discern the existence (or lack of it) of any deity. That’s why it’s called “faith” and “belief”: It is your own personal opinion (one that you happen to share with many people) that you hold despite the fact that you have no objective reason by which to confirm it is valid.

And that is entirely fine. Brushing aside the issue of organized religion and its sociopolitical effects, spirituality is fine. Although I consider myself a rational person (a facet that my mother pokes at, saying that it’s a problem when I must have facts and proof before accepting anything), it’s not as if my belief that aliens exist are highly rational and objective. It is a belief based on the statistical likelihood that there exists something else in the universe as well as some wishful thinking on my part, so it’s not as if I’m in any position to criticize those who believe in God or Allah or Buddha because their beliefs aren’t “rational” or “objective”.

But the problem here is that this goes beyond belief. This goes into politics and lobbying and funding of organizations that try to change laws based on their religious beliefs. Groups like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Organization for Marriage, and the Family Research Council regularly fund campaigns and lobby in Washington, D.C., to change laws and policies, to make it difficult for persons not cisgendered or heterosexual to be given constitutional rights, and to deny women healthcare that they need. Let us not deceive ourselves: Whatever else their rationalities are, these groups are largely religiously-motivated. And while it is not within my rights or anyone else’s rights to stop them from believing in what they believe, it is difficult to defend their attempts to change government policy based on such beliefs. If you agree with me that my beliefs, without proof, are not worth changing laws and policy over – if you agree that the possibility of two hundred and fifty million hostile aliens races that might attack Earth is insufficient a rationale to spend an untold amount of government money on a planetary defense network – then it is hypocritical to say that your beliefs, also without proof, are worth changing laws and policy over – that the possibility a deity who disapproves of homosexuality is sufficient a rationale to deny non-cisgendered, non-heterosexual individuals their rights. These groups, like many other non-governmental organizations such as the National Rifle Association, have spent much money to influence the decision of policy-makers, to change the way governments are run. The National Organization for Marriage (whose acronym I refuse to use, because I “nom” people online affectionately, and such a loving notion should not be associated with an acronym that’s not about love and affection) has spent millions of U.S. dollars (which they then refused to disclose as required by law) on lobbying efforts to prevent homosexual individuals from marrying or adopting, based primarily on the idea that an Abrahamic deity forbids it, or that marriage is somehow exclusive to Abrahamic faiths.

One might argue that it’s “harmless”, it’s just putting money where one’s beliefs are, in which having beliefs are entirely legal. And while this might all sound tame, it sounds much less noble when one realizes the FRC paid $25,000 to conservative politicians in Congress so that they could stall a bill that would have the United States condemn Uganda when the African country passed a bill that would make homosexuality an offense punishable by death.

That’s worth thinking about: The FRC didn’t just say “homosexuality is wrong”, they paid money so that the United States could not remind Uganda that it’s not nice to execute people because of their sexual orientation. With money, they approved of the Ugandan government killing people based on their sexual orientation by stopping the American government from reacting to it in any constructive way.

You may want to think about when’s the last time you paid someone money to tell another somebody that it’s okay to kill people whose only “crime” is that they loved someone of the same sex.

So some people may think, “Alright, so stopping the U.S. from criticizing governments that execute people for being gay was really not cool of the FRC. And maybe it’s not so cool of such NGOs to lobby so much. But, hey, freedom of religion, right? As long as we don’t do ‘bad stuff’ like say it’s totally cool for the Uganda government to execute gays, the government can’t make us do stuff against our religious beliefs – like the new health care bill that forces employers to provide contraceptives although it’s against Christian doctrine – because the freedom guarantees ‘freedom of religion’, right?”

In Relation to the United States Constitution

I’m largely going to focus on the United States here, because it always feels as if their freedom of religion beliefs are in conflict with national politics, and because – as Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom would have you believe – the only categories America is number one in is the number of incarcerated citizens per capita, defense spending, and the “number of adults who believe angels are real”.

Freedom of religion in the United States is guaranteed through the First Amendment of the Constitution, through the means of the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

These clauses mean several things: 1) The government cannot adopt a national religion, 2) the government may not favor one religion over another, 3) through points 1 and 2, it means the United States is not a de jure Christian nation, 4) the government may not stop people from believing in any religion, 5) a government may step into religious affairs to ensure the integrity of the Free Exercise Clause, and 6) through points 4 and 5, no other religious institution or organization may stop other institutions or organizations from practicing their beliefs. And, through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, 7) all related federal laws apply to the entire United States, no matter which state I go to.

Let’s take this to the logical extreme. I believe in the imaginary religion that is a cross between radical Islam (as understood by Americans) and Aztec mythology. I am allowed to do so because 4) the government may not stop me from believing in any religion, and I’m not in any politically disadvantaged position because 1) the government cannot adopt a national religion, 2) the government may not favor one religion over another, and 7) all related federal laws apply to the entire United States. My religion says that I am to be in a polygamist relationship, and I must offer people to the sun god to stave off the end of the world, including Christians who do not hold the same beliefs as I do, because 5) the government may step into religious affairs to ensure I am allowed my right to exercise my religion, and 6) no Christian institution or organization may stop my religious institution or organization from practicing my religion.

At this point you will plead (or, at least I hope you will) common sense or the rule of law, that my religious beliefs does not take precedence over the U.S. legal system, that I will not be safe from prosecution if I murder someone in the name of my religious beliefs, that Reynolds v. United States (in which George Reynolds was prosecuted for practicing bigamy in violation of federal law) makes it clear: “Laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices.”

At which point I will say: “Thank you.”

Governments are permitted to pass rational, objective laws that coincidentally interfere with the practice of religion. When we cite federal law and common sense, when we agree that murder is illegal, we are not saying “murder is illegal because a Christian deity says so”, we’re saying “murder is illegal because it’s an act that destroys the integrity of human life, even if there are religions in the world that say murder is a-okay”. And when we say contraceptives must be provided by all employers, we’re not saying “contraceptives must be provided by all employers to mess with Christians”, we’re saying “contraceptives must be provided by all employers because it’s really necessary for women’s health, although it’s too bad Christianity thinks differently”. Governments are allowed to restrict religions so long as restricting religion is not the goal, just the byproduct. You may believe in whatever you wish, but the practice of religious acts that are illegal by the terms of federal law are just that, illegal. Federal laws come first.

So the healthcare bill that requires employers to provide women birth control, movements that say homosexual marriage should be legal, these are not “assaults on religious freedom”. These are attempts to pass law due to physiological and psychological health issues – the well-being of each and every citizen, which is the responsibility of any government – that just happen to infringe upon the tenets of an Abrahamic faith. And as we have already covered, federal law trumps religious law. The government has 1) not adopted a national religion, 2) not favored one religion over another, 3) not become a de jure Christian nation or a nation of any other faith, 4) not stopped anyone from believing in their religions, 5) stepped into religious affairs to ensure the integrity of the Free Exercise Clause, 6) prevented religious institutions and organizations from stopping other institutions and organizations from practicing their beliefs, and 7) applied this to the entirety of the United States.

That sounds entirely Constitutional to me.

And before you start with “but God knows what is best for us”, remember what was said earlier: We have zero evidence that a Christian – or even an Abrahamic – deity exists. You may certainly believe, but as the minister from the 007 film Quantum of Solace noted, “Policy cannot be conducted on the basis of hunches and innuendo.” Just as we should not rationally construct a planetary defense network without proof that hostile aliens exist despite its mathematical likelihood, neither should we pass legal decisions without proof that an Abrahamic deity exists despite its mathematical likelihood.


“Freedom of religion” means “the freedom of people to believe in whatever religion they want without political persecution”. It does not mean “the freedom of religion to do whatever it wants”.

There is no “assault on religious freedom”. There is no one being legally persecuted for believing in God. There is, however, a change – as permitted by the Constitution – in way America deals with the separation of church and state, a concept promised to us by the Founding Fathers, a change that honestly shouldn’t even exist, because the implementation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments should have been Constitutionally-binding for more than the last two centuries.

For more than two centuries, the government has tolerated the religious abuse of the Constitution. State governments openly identify themselves as Christian states, state governments have favored Christians over everyone else from atheists to Muslims, governments on both the state and federal levels have allowed Christian institutions and religions to interfere with the rights and beliefs of other demographics, and the federal governments have not enforced the Due Process Clause that ensures all state governments adhere to the First Amendment.

The result is that for more than two centuries, Americans have become accustomed to a society where the Constitution has been constantly violated. Generations have grown up on the idea that the violation of the First Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment is entirely alright. And they panic – understandably – when this worldview and lifestyle that had been reaffirmed by two hundred and twenty-three years is suddenly being threatened by people coming to realize that we have been violating the Constitution after all.

These people aren’t “evil”. They – like you, me, and almost everyone else – are simply afraid of changes in their fundamental beliefs that they aren’t ready for. These are people who are threatened with the idea that they’re “evil people” – they’re not – because a growing movement is telling them the ideology they grew up on – likely the only ideology they’ve ever heard with any detail or explanation or elaboration – is wrong. That’s understandable, and I can sympathize. But this doesn’t mean we haven’t been in violation of the Constitution for two hundred and twenty-three years. This doesn’t mean we haven’t been giving religion free rein instead of giving each and every one of us free rein to believe in what we wish. This doesn’t mean we haven’t been trying to trump federal law with religious law (and I wonder how comfortable people would be if I stated Islamic sharia law should precede federal law). And, perhaps most importantly, this doesn’t mean passing laws motivated by a deity we cannot objectively prove isn’t any more silly than passing laws demanding the construction of a planetary defense system motivated by the possibility of a hostile alien invasion we cannot objectively prove.

(…But let’s face it: The construction of a planetary defense system would be totally awesome.)

Categories: Politics and Society
  1. anonymouspersonguy
    August 3, 2012 at 14:50

    great post, phoenixfactory :). nowadays, too many people mistake a deviance from a religion’s privileged position for an attack on said religion, and your post addresses this issue nicely.

  2. Anne
    August 3, 2012 at 23:07

    As always, a wonderfully thoughtful post that’s quite effective and clarifying exactly why the issue you chose to discuss is… an issue. This happens to be one that frustrates me to no end (ask any friend of mine about my ideas on it and they’ll tell you that I generally end up exclaiming something along the lines of “SECULAR GOVERNMENT” during the discussion. I really enjoyed your take on it and how skillfully you kept the tone neutral between atheism and religion while being respectful to each and any other smaller groups. It’s so bloody hard to find any news source that deals in neutrality, so this was a real refreshing read. :]

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