The ongoing flap—hardly a debate—over the Ground Zero Mosque has elicited the response (as predictable as it is erroneous) that to deny a building permit to Muslims would a) violate the First Amendment and b) abridge the freedom of religion that belongs to every human being by virtue of natural law, divine will, or whatever justification you wish to invent. The inevitable reductio ad absurdum of this argument was reached in Oklahoma, where a group of Satanists is going to stage a blasphemy in the main hall of the Oklahoma City Civic Center. They cannot be denied a permit because that would infringe their religious freedom.
Whenever one of these controversies erupts, there are only two sides in the public form. the Hard Left—whether Marxists, Libertarians, or Multi-Culturalists—take their stand on freedom of religion, while the Soft Left (otherwise known as Conservatives) say that while there is a freedom of religion, it does not quite extend to Satanists or Muslims wanting to build a mosque at Ground Zero, though a mosque anywhere else is just fine and dandy.
Let me put my cards on the table. The First Amendment does not impose a universal right to religious freedom within the United States but only forbids the Congress (and by implication the President and the Courts if they pretend to be legislators) to interfere in the exercise of religion or set up a national church. We have a national church–that goes without saying–in the education establishment, but that is another question.
Any conservative, that is any soft-leftist, who knows anything about the Constitution will agree with this first point, though they may be under the delusion that the 14th Amendment has something to say about religion, but where they are sure to be enraged is with my second point, which is this: There is not only no natural or rational or god-given right to religious freedom, but, what is more, the whole idea is entirely bogus. Freedom of religion is nothing other than a weapon, forged by the Enlightenment Left, in their unremitting campaign to extirpate Christianity.
What, some blockheaded Norwegian is sure to exclaim, are you arguing for theocracy? Of course not. There is an infinite set of possibilities spanning the gap between complete freedom of religion and theocracy. The Romans had a state religion but permitted most unofficial or alien cults but with many exceptions or restrictions. The cult of Dionysus was proscribed because it encouraged licentiousness and the Senate, on a famous occasion, condemned violators of the ban to death, though it instructed their families to carry out the sentence. Druidism was forbidden, not only because the Druids practiced human sacrifice but probably also because the priests were the intellectual and political leaders of Celtic resistance. Judaism was licit, and because of their rules on sabbath observance Jews were not forced to serve in the army. Christianity was outlawed for several reasons: The founder of the religion had been put to death as a traitor or leader of a rebellion, and his followers were accused by their Jewish neighbors of a variety of crimes–sex orgies and human sacrifice. Some alien cults that many Romans found distasteful were permitted but restricted. No Roman could become a priest of Cyble/Magna Mater, because priests had to be mutilated, and their public activities were restricted to a certain time of the year. Augustus ruled that Egyptian cult could not be celebrated in Rome itself, and there were periodic deportations of soothsayers and philosophers.
But no major commonwealth has probably ever been so tolerant of religious diversity. The polytheistic Romans believed you could not have too many gods, potentially, on your side, and Tiberius is said even to have proposed the inclusion of Christ in the Roman pantheon. (Obviously non-Christian scholars do not believe this, but it is perfectly possible. Tiberius would have liked that bit about “my kingdom is not of this world” and welcomed a sect of Judaism, as he would have regarded it, that was not likely to start another rebellion.) But their generous toleration had limits, and cults that threatened security or offended against Roman taste or morals were either restricted or banned outright.
A man would be very foolish who thought that Christians, once given the right to practice their religion openly, would be eager to tolerate rival religions. Unlike Roman pagans, Christians believed they had a monopoly on truth and despised all other religions as the worship of demons. They were, however, wise enough to grab much of the best that paganism had to offer: Roman marriage customs and festivals and the Greek philosophical tradition. The result was that Christianity escaped its narrowly parochial Jewish origins–and the mean-spirited law that condemned parts of the creation as unclean. Ordinary Christians were able to savor the festival joys–suitably christened– that pagan religions offered, and theologians availed themselves of the wisdom of Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus.
Between Constantine and Theodosius the Church grew and prospered–except for the fortunately brief reign of Julian–and the somewhat bigoted Theodosius outlawed other religions, though it would take some time for intellectuals to give up their philosophies and ordinary people to renounce all their old ways.
Enough history. Religious freedom is a gift of a society or commonwealth, not a natural right. This is partly because religion is not faith–what one believes or feels–but an organized public action. Thus the public or republic has the right and duty to protect itself from alien or malignant cults. In a diverse Christian society, naturally, the various churches have had to learn to tolerate each other, though in practice toleration is generally a sign of indifference. Church becomes that thing you do or don’t do on one day a week. It is like the beautiful jewel you take out of the box every once in a while to admire and feel good about yourself for owning. But religion is more like a wedding ring, a visible symbol of an enduring commitment.
The painful truth is that serious Catholics and serious Calvinists cannot live together without sacrificing a good deal of their religion. Christians can only co-exist with Jews on a basis of toleration, that is, the Christian majority agrees to put up with an alien religion so long as the adherents behave themselves. But Satanists? Muslims? The idea of Christians according religious freedom to Muslims who define themselves in part by their hatred of Christianity and who have oppressed Christians whenever they have had the power to do so, is preposterous. It is worse than preposterous, because the point of the exercise is not to liberate Muslims but to enslave Christians.
I could say much more, and I shall in my November essay in Chronicles. In the meantime, I am happy to develop the argument in response to queries and constructive criticism.