To the degree that these principles have remained fixed in the American legal and social consciousness, freedom has indeed flourished. I am composing this during a NATO bombing offensive in Serbia and Kosovo. But even this seemingly contentious compromise of Jefferson's commitment comes from a national affirmation of freedom, equality, and tolerance for all peoples.
Of course, to quote again from that era, "these are the times that try men's souls." If that was true then, it is many times truer now. Oklahoma bombing and tornado. Los Angeles riots. Y2K panic and paramilitary survivalists. Columbine High School and teen violence. The very fabric of freedom seems to be unraveling and insecure.
In the aftermath of the shootings in Columbine, Colorado, there is much discussion of what a free society can do to restrict this random violence. Many suspect that it is not quite so random and is related to an underlying malice that must be dealt with legislatively. In fact, even high government officials are voicing the possibility of restrictions in freedom for the public safety. But where do these and other quick prescriptions stand in the light of Benjamin Franklin's admonition that "those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety"?
It seemed so right for Thomas Jefferson and his peers who signed the original compacts that define our freedoms to erect a wall between the responsibilities of the state and the very personal world of religious faith. The record of history in the Old World taught them well. And most Americans recognize that careful adherence to this separation has allowed a diversity of religions to flourish and created a climate of freedom--not abstract freedom but personal, actual freedom.
But now as we come to these darkening days at the end of this century, far too many are grasping at some mandated morality to fix the ills in society. It remains my conviction that to deal with these real problems with the heavy hand of a dark yesteryear is to threaten the very basis of our freedoms in these United States.
We have seen the rise and fall of a U.S.S.R. premised on the religion of man and an opposition to all ancient faith systems. Its abuses were very real and their affects linger with us today. Some years ago I attended a Christian church in the hard-line Communist state of Bulgaria. In a "concession" to older people of faith the state did allocate meetinghouses for believers. But the people were to meet only within very strict time frames and forbidden outside that public meeting to discuss their faith with anyone--even at times their own children. I will not easily forget the pleas of an older man that we somehow help in his efforts to keep his family together. Because of the family's religious faith the state was about to remove his daughter from the household. The charge was that she was attending church services rather than school. Of course this was a conflict that the state had implicitly built into the timetable and school requirements.
Those days are gone and that "evil empire" has collapsed, but it is worth considering that in a singularly perverse reverse logic we may fall into the same despotic era by enshrining "mainline" Christian faith and observance into our laws and then restrict and persecute those worshipers of other faiths or nonworshipers who refuse to comply. This is not an adequate response to national trauma or to the need to solve the moral wounds of a desensitized television generation.
Am I running ahead of reality here and of church-state relations in the overall "liberty" issue? I think not.
The United States remains a unique example in the world of freedom and idealism. True! But never before has freedom been so under attack and the very foundational principles so deeply questioned.
I believe that Liberty magazine has an indispensable role to play in proclaiming that true liberty is for all, and that religious liberty under our Constitution is protected and guaranteed by a very circumspect separation of powers.
A few months ago my predecessor departed via an editorial and below a rather interesting illustration of him as a cherub in midheaven (an act of hubris which I choose to assign to the artist!). I think it appropriate that this, my first editorial, has the accompanying illustration of yours truly taking the high road in those spacious skies. (And speaking of editorial egomania, this painting was once the cover illustration for a periodical published by a previous employer.)
To my mind, religious liberty must always be a high and exalted concept. With it we truly walk in the high places above the sometimes dark and mundane world. It is worth preserving. And while I may personally believe that all true liberty ultimately derives from the Creator-God, in maintaining true liberty in these United States and under our well-proven Constitution it is absolutely vital to follow the prescription of Roger Williams in his letter to the town of Providence (January 1655): "It hath fallen out sometimes that both Papist and Protestants, Jews, and Turks may be embarked in one ship; upon which supposal I affirm that all the liberty of conscience that ever I pleaded for turns upon these two hinges--that none of the Papists, Protestants, Jews, or Turks be forced to come to the ship's prayers or worship, nor compelled from their own particular prayers or worship, if they practice any." That is the true practice of liberty. That will continue to be the overriding emphasis of Liberty.
Lincoln E. Steed
Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed
Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."