Today, I would like to share some thoughts with you about religious liberty in America. It’s an important priority in this Administration and for this Department of Justice…
From the Founding Era onward, there was strong consensus about the centrality of religious liberty in the United States.
The imperative of protecting religious freedom was not just a nod in the direction of piety. It reflects the Framers’ belief that religion was indispensable to sustaining our free system of government.
In his renowned 1785 pamphlet, “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,” James Madison described religious liberty as “a right towards men” but “a duty towards the Creator,” and a “duty….precedent both in order of time and degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.”
It has been over 230 years since that small group of colonial lawyers led a revolution and launched what they viewed as a great experiment, establishing a society fundamentally different than those that had gone before.
They crafted a magnificent charter of freedom – the United States Constitution – which provides for limited government, while leaving “the People” broadly at liberty to pursue our lives both as individuals and through free associations.
This quantum leap in liberty has been the mainspring of unprecedented human progress, not only for Americans, but for people around the world.
In the 20th century, our form of free society faced a severe test.
There had always been the question whether a democracy so solicitous of individual freedom could stand up against a regimented totalitarian state.
That question was answered with a resounding “yes” as the United States stood up against and defeated, first fascism, and then communism.
But in the 21st century, we face an entirely different kind of challenge.
The challenge we face is precisely what the Founding Fathers foresaw would be our supreme test as a free society.
They never thought the main danger to the republic came from external foes. The central question was whether, over the long haul, we could handle freedom. The question was whether the citizens in such a free society could maintain the moral discipline and virtue necessary for the survival of free institutions.
By and large, the Founding generation’s view of human nature was drawn from the classical Christian tradition.
These practical statesmen understood that individuals, while having the potential for great good, also had the capacity for great evil.
Men are subject to powerful passions and appetites, and, if unrestrained, are capable of ruthlessly riding roughshod over their neighbors and the community at large.
No society can exist without some means for restraining individual rapacity.
But, if you rely on the coercive power of government to impose restraints, this will inevitably lead to a government that is too controlling, and you will end up with no liberty, just tyranny.
On the other hand, unless you have some effective restraint, you end up with something equally dangerous – licentiousness – the unbridled pursuit of personal appetites at the expense of the common good. This is just another form of tyranny – where the individual is enslaved by his appetites, and the possibility of any healthy community life crumbles.