In 1783, reflecting on his service as commander-in-chief of the colonial armies, George Washington said: “The establishment of Civil and Religious Liberty was the Motive which induced me to the Field, the object is obtained, and it now remains to be my earnest wish and prayer, that the Citizens of the United States would make a wise and virtuous use of the blessings, placed before them.” His ideas of freedom would soon be inscribed in the first 10 amendments to the United States Constitution, guaranteeing citizens important rights vis-a-vis their government. Today, however, when many of those freedoms seem imperiled, we should especially note threats to the very first item therein listed—freedom of religion: “Congress shall establish no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Contrary those who envision that amendment as a “wall of separation” between church and state, Kenneth Starr insists it actually erected a “‘wall of protection’ so that faith communities can freely chart their own course without disrupting significant public interests” (p. 13). So he has written Religious Liberty in Crisis: Exercising Your Faith in an Age of Uncertainty (New York: Encounter Books, c. 2021, Kindle Edition). No one could more adequately deal with this subject, for Stasrr is both a noted legal scholar and a devout Christian. Appointed to the District of Columbia Circuit of Appeals by President Reagan, then serving as Solicitor General of the United States under President George H.W. Bush, he might well have joined the United States Supreme Court in 1990 had not President Bush decided to avoid a Robert Bork style battle in the Senate by appointing the enigmatic David Souter instead. Add to his judicial prowess the fact that he was born in Texas and reared in a pastor’s home (his father ministering in the Churches of Christ denomination). Thenceforth, though moving away from his father’s denomination, he says: “Faith proved to be a pillar of strength in my daily life.”
Starr begins his treatise by asserting: “Our national DNA contains a dominant freedom gene” (p. 1). “Ordered liberty” is basic to the American way. Freedom of religion is simply one important aspect of its flourishing. But that freedom has been severely limited by the various lockdowns imposed by governments endeavoring to deal with the COVID crisis. Along with mandated business and school closures, churches and religious institutions had their worship services cancelled. “Religion, just like virtually every other sector of American society, other than Walmart and the local liquor stores, was facing a deep crisis” (p. 8). Ignoring the First Amendment, numbers of “American Caesars” simply decreed that health concerns cancelled freedom of religion. Tellingly, the Caesars deemed some activities absolutely essential—marijuana outlets in Colorado and California, casinos in Nevada! When the Supreme Court was asked to rule on the Nevada restrictions, the majority of justices supported the outrageous position Neal Gorsuch pilloried, declaring: “‘[T]here is no world in which the Constitution permits Nevada to favor Caesars Palace over Calvary Chapel’” (p. 10).
Here and there a few churches chose to defy government edicts but were subject to crushing fines and harsh denunciation. Most chose to go along to get along and design creative alternatives to corporate worship. In retrospect, Starr challenges people of faith to seriously consider one essential “question: when does the government’s authority trump religious assembly and expression?” His answer: demand autonomy! It’s the master “key to religious liberty.” It is “a special concept for friends of religious liberty. It is one of what we can call the Great Principles that undergird our system of ordered liberty. Properly understood, the autonomy principle provides an extra layer of constitutional protection for all faith communities, and it is one that the Supreme Court has vigorously policed and guaranteed” (p. 12). Autonomy entails self-government. Any free person or institution governs himself. Importantly: “Throughout our nation’s history, the idea of autonomy, of leaving churches alone to govern their own affairs, has been deemed fundamental to our constitutional order. Simply put, faith-bearing Americans have upheld the notion that Caesar should mind his own business and stay out of matters of religion, including matters of church governance. This allows the faithful to freely exercise the tenets of their religion without fear of government interference, or of discrimination—a founding principle of our constitutional order” (pp. 12-13).
Despite alarming assaults on religious liberties during the COVID panic, Starr wants us to understand how the Supreme Court has increasingly defended the autonomy of churches. Wisely utilizing these decisions will enable us to better deal with coming threats to religious freedom, for they have declared that, “absent compelling reasons, the government cannot pass laws that target religious institutions in discriminatory ways; and governmental entities cannot interfere with religious institutions, including church schools, in ways that compromise their autonomy to express their beliefs and carry out their faith vision” (p. 18). And he’s written this book in an eirenic and optimistic way, hoping to show that “the prospects for continuing protection of religious liberty are actually quite good” (p. 18).
Thirty years ago I debated an atheist in San Diego who was determined to remove as cross from atop Mt Soledad in La Jolla. The cross had stood since 1913 as a memorial to those killed in military action and was widely esteemed as a landmark in the area. The atheists’ legal maneuvers, countered by veterans’ and religious organizations, would ricochet through various courts for 25 years—only to be concluded with the Department of Defense sold the property to a private organization which would leave the cross in place. A similar case recently occurred in Prince George’s County, Maryland (now a suburb of Washington, D.C.), involving what’s known as the Bladensburg Cross. It was erected following World War I to commemorate the soldiers from Prince George’s County who died doing battle in Europe and was funded and cared for by government entities. For decades it was quite uncontroversial. But then the American Humanist Association decided it posed a dire threat to all who would see it and brought a lawsuit to remove it. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit “agreed with the Humanists. The court found that the memorial cross was an unacceptable symbol of Christianity physically situated on public property. It had to come down” (p. 24). The appeals court cited a famous case, Lemon v. Kurtzman, that decreed public monuments must have purely secular themes and reasoned a cross failed to pass that test.
But when the case was subsequently brought to the U.S. Supreme Court a surprise verdict was rendered! “In a stunning 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court concluded that the Bladensburg Cross would continue to stand. The basis of the court’s decision? The cross was not so much a religious symbol as it was a monument to history and tradition, reflecting and embodying the culture of the people who erected it. All but two of the nine justices (Justice Ginsburg and Justice Sotomayor, who viewed the monument as a religious statement) accepted that proposition, determining that the long-standing religious symbol could remain in place on public land, maintained and preserved through the expenditure of local taxpayer dollars. To say it was a blow to the Humanists is an understatement” (p. 25). Writing for the majority, Justice Samuel Alito appraised and defended the presence and significance of religious symbols—crosses and the 10 Commandments—standing on public property. Speaking for the Supreme Court, Alito decried efforts to tear down monuments or rename cities or otherwise “‘de-Christianize’ American society would reasonably be perceived as governmental hostility to religion” and thus violate the First Amendment (p. 27).
So too the Supreme Court has moved in the direction of permitting prayer is public facilities, something disallowed for decades by a variety of courts since the 1962 Engel v. Vitale Supreme Court decision. “In essence, the court concluded that composing prayers for recitation in the public schools, or in any other official activity, constituted government overreach” (p. 54). Subsequently, all too many “wildly overread” the Court’s opinion, which “did not ban prayer in public schools under any and all circumstances. Far from it. To the contrary, what was constitutionally offensive was much more limited, namely, the official sponsorship of prayers that aligned the government with an expression of faith” (p. 55). Fearful school administrators (fearing vocal agitators and costly lawsuits) and lower courts (determined to exclude religion from state-supported institutions) were especially inclined to ban all prayers.
From banning prayers the secularists turned to banning Bible clubs and student-led religious activities in the schools and Christmas displays on public lands and the phrase “in God we trust” in the pledge of allegiance. But in time the Congress responded to these issues by passing the Equal Access Act during the Reagan years. This bill illustrates “a larger truth,” Starr says. “Time and again, Congress and the president monitor the religious-liberty landscape, step into the fray and strike mighty blows, often collaboratively, in favor of religious freedom.” This was particularly evident when in 1993 Congress passed “the most important religious-liberty Congressional reform in the nation’s history: the Religious Freedom Restoration Act” (p. 73). “It was an historic first. Religious liberty had never enjoyed such an overwhelming legislative triumph” (p. 76). Consequently, in recent years—relying on history and tradition rather than lower courts’ decisions—the Court has reasoned, for example, that inasmuch as chaplains had offered prayers in various legislators since the Republic’s founding, prayers in civic sites may be allowed.
School vouchers, enabling parents to send their children to private schools, have strengthened religious freedom in the country. In the 1990s, Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson, prodded by Milwaukee’s poorly-performing public-school system, vigorously promoted vouchers (dubbed “school choice”) and recruited Kenneth Starr to orchestrate the legal defense of his endeavors. Various challenges wound their way through multiple courts until the Supreme Court finally rendered a verdict that granted “an enormous victory for religious liberty” (p. 95). Speaking for the majority, Chief Justice Rehnquist ignored the tangle of prior decisions dealing with state aid to parochial schools, “cast a wide descriptive net, reviewing an enormous body of Supreme Court precedent,” and highlighted “three earlier high court decisions that had approved different forms of parental choice . . . which resulted in parochial schools or institutions receiving state funds” (p. 94).
Had Kenneth Starr not been known for his pro-life convictions he might have become a Supreme Court justice! As a committed Christian he has resolutely defended an unborn baby’s rigbt to life. Arguing this cause before the Court as Solicitor General, in the infamous Planned Parenthood v. Casey in 1992, he said: “Roe v. Wade should be overruled,” because it “was wrongly decided twenty years earlier and has been unsparingly criticized over the years for the weakness of its legal reasoning.” Roe v. Wade had “created a new constitutional right out of whole cloth” and “needed to be overturned” (p. 137). Though he (and many legal scholars) thought they had a strong case, a plurality of the justices decided to retain the “core Holding” of Roe, basically they thought overturning it would create social unrest. Invoking a legal precept (stare decisis) they simply declared “it’s been decided.” Abortion rights were enshrined!
In fact, stare decisis had never proved decisive in Supreme Court decisions—the Court had throughout the years overruled some 200 of its own decisions. Thus Justice Louis Brandeis, a century ago explained: “‘[I]n cases involving the Federal Constitution, where correction through legislative action is practically impossible, this court has often overruled its earlier decisions. The court bows to the lessons of experience and the force of better reasoning, recognizing that the process of trial and error, so fruitful in the physical sciences, is appropriate also to the judicial function’” (p. 144). By ignoring Brandeis’ admonition and insisting Roe v. Wade be firmly established throughout this nation’s judiciary, the justices in Planned Parenthood v. Casey perpetuated what Starr considers an evil and divisive practice.
As is evident in his discussion of abortion, Starr acknowledges the power of anti-religious forces in America. While he finds many encouraging elements in Supreme Court decisions during the past 50 years, he warns Christians that secularists are ever on the offensive, seeking to eliminate religion from the public square. Endless illustrations of this may easily be assembled. “But it is not only religious liberty that’s under assault in America. Our entire constitutional order of democratic debate is under challenge” (p. 169). Finally: “In this era of open hostility to communities of faith, let’s ‘keep calm and carry on,’ with winsomeness and “charity for all,” fighting the good fight and championing the Great Principles of American liberty.
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Whereas Kenneth Starr, reading recent Supreme Court decisions, found reasons for optimism regarding religious liberty, David Horowitz, in Dark Agenda: The War to Destroy Christian America (West Palm Beach, FL: Humanix Books, 2018. Kindle Edition), wrote to decry the rising tide of assaults on it. Such endeavors are hardly new: “Since its birth in the fires of the French Revolution, the political left has been at war with religion, and with the Christian religion in particular” (p. 10). The Jacobins renamed the Notre Dame Cathedral the “Temple of Reason,” sought to suppress the Church and killed thousands of Christians. Decades later Karl Marx decried religion as “the opium of the people” and Communists thereafter tried to all means possible to eradicate it. And today’s American leftists, given the opportunity, will do precisely the same.
They would do so because the Left is deeply religious, and as Pascal wisely wrote, centuries ago: “Men never commit evil so fully and joyfully as when they do it for religious convictions.” Analyzing the work of one of the “new atheists,” his friend Christopher Hitchens (a brilliant journalist who wrote God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything), Horowitz found him full of an ill-founded religious faith: Marxist humanism (Comte’s “religion of humanity”). His “vision of mankind’s liberation from timeless afflictions—fear, disease, tyranny—is as head-spinning as any flourish in Marx’s writings. It is in fact an updated version of Christopher’s lifelong romance with Marxism, which he never really abandoned” (p. 19). Along with Marx, he wanted to “abolish religion” in order to secure their ultimate happiness.
Reared in a “red diaper” home, Horowitz was a deeply committed Communist, one of the leaders of the “New Left” in the 1960s. He personally knows many of the leading leftists and fully understands their agenda. Generally labeling themselves “progressives,” they continue to pursue their socialistic, utopian dreams—a heaven-on-earth. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, they no longer espouse “‘Communism.’ They call it social justice.’ Like Communism, social justice is an impossible future in which the inequalities and oppressions that have afflicted human beings for millennia will miraculously vanish and social harmony will rule” (p. 29). They fail to acknowledge the great truth proclaimed by Alexander Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago: “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts.”
Solzhenitsyn’s position—the ancient Christian view—is anathema to the social justice warriors now so prominent in the United States, for they lobster good and evil in classes or ethnic groups or genders. “These opposing visions are the root cause of the war that is the subject of this book. The social redeemers view the Christian concern for the salvation of individual souls as counterrevolutionary, a cause of social oppression. To them, religious believers are obstacles on the path to the future—and must be removed. That is why progressives have declared war on religious liberty, which is America’s founding principle. And that is why they seek to silence and suppress its defenders” (p. 32).
This effort to silence Christians is significantly, if surreptitiously, on display in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, which was opened a decade ago. To Horowitz: “The $621 million center is less a monument to the nation’s founding and institutions than it is to the antireligious left’s vision for America. When it opened, all references to God and faith had been carefully, deliberately edited out of its photos and historical displays. One panel in particular claimed that the national motto of the United States is E Pluribus Unum (‘Out of Many, One’). In fact, the national motto, as established by an act of Congress in 1956, is ‘In God We Trust.’ A replica of the Speaker’s rostrum of the House of Representatives omits the gold-lettered inscription ‘In God We Trust’ above the chair. Photos of the actual Speaker’s rostrum were cropped to hide the inscription.” “An enlarged image of the Constitution was photoshopped to remove the words ‘in the Year of our Lord’ above the signatures of the signers.” It is obvious that: “The designers of the center had gone to great lengths to alter essential American history. (p. 33).
Those in charge of the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center rather resemble the “ministry of truth” in George Orwell’s l984. As do educators crafting textbooks for public schools! For example, references to the Pilgrims or the Mayflower have been deleted from elementary school textbooks in several states. Since the word “Pilgrim” might lead children to think religion was important, they must learn about “early settlers” or “European colonizers.” If Thanksgiving is mentioned there is no clue regarding whom is to be thanked. As well as censoring textbooks, the public schools “prohibit Christian students from reading the Bible, praying, displaying the Ten Commandments, and even mentioning the word ‘God’” (p. 48). Leftists controlling the public schools refuse to expose students to the fact that America was deeply rooted in Christian thought. These endeavors rely on a radical reinterpretation of the “establishment clause” of the First Amendment so that: “Not only is it now unconstitutional to freely exercise religion in a public school, but the freedom of speech is abridged (prayer is speech). Freedom of the press is shut down (God has been edited out of our history textbooks). The right of the people to peaceably assemble on school grounds (such as a prayer huddle after a game or a baccalaureate service) is severely restricted” (p. 52).
What’s transformed the public schools has also transpired in the nation’s sexual ethos. Horowitz analyzes this process by citing Margaret Sanger’s resolve in the 1920s to “remake the world” by “controlling birth” and granting women “reproductive freedom.” In time her aspirations flourished as the Supreme Court (in its 1965 Griswold edict) found “a ‘right to privacy’ in the ‘penumbras’ and ‘emanations’ of the Bill of Rights” which “would provide a rationale for a series of new rights that would change the American landscape for generations to come: in 1972, the right to birth control for unmarried couples; in 1973, a woman’s constitutional right to abortion; in 1977, a right to contraception for juveniles at least sixteen years of age; in 2002 a right to homosexual relations; and in 2015, a right to same-sex marriage” (p. 64). That all this constituted a “sexual revolution” cannot be denied. And that it constituted a full-fledged assault on the Christian tradition is also quite clear.
Repeatedly Horowitz emphasizes that today’s culture wars are, from the Left’s perspective, mere aspects of one ultimate war-to-the-death! Issues such and abortion are part-and-parcel of a larger agenda—a deadly agenda to destroy Christianity. “Each victory motivated the leftists to move on to the next item on their expansive agenda. The issue was never the issue. The issue was always the revolution. Each radical victory only inspired more radical aspirations and efforts” (p. 76). Underlying all the various assaults on religious liberty is “a radical movement whose members are convinced the society-transforming ends justify the undemocratic and extra-constitutional and even racist means” (p. 73). These radicals threaten to dissolve what the nation’s Civil War once established, “a society that approaches the ideals laid down in our country’s founding documents.” They control a political party “committed to an identity politics that is the antithesis of the ideas and principles the founding established.” He warns that: “A nation divided by such fundamental ideas—individual freedom on one side and group identity on the other—cannot long endure” (p. 126).