Dear Friends in Christ,
The government of the United States has no religion so that the citizens of the United States can have whatever religion they each want, including the liberty to renounce religion. In broad strokes, that is the settlement selected by the Founders and Framers of our Republic as the New World’s solution to old Europe’s wars of religion, and their choice set the stage for a new relationship between the ancient institutions of State and Church. In Article VI, Clause 3 the Constitution of the United States declares that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” And then the First Amendment to the Constitution provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
So, freedom of religion for all citizens is the first natural human right enumerated in the Bill of Rights, and that recognition reinforces the constitutional provision that there shall be no tests of religion for any office or public trust in our nation. But please note that these arrangements for creating a clear space between the institutions of the Church and the State have nothing whatever to do with attempting to separate religion from public life. The State is the whole of public life only in totalitarian dictatorships, and one of the hallmarks of our democratic Republic is that the State is severely limited by constitutional constraints and constitutes only one part of the much larger reality of public life. In fact, the Founders and Framers left ample evidence that they knew our Republic could not long endure if religion ever ceased to be a vital force in public life, and so the very reason why the State would have no religion is so that citizens could have whatever religion desired by each, thus providing the space for a vibrant role of religion in public life.
Sadly, that vision of religion and public life has too often not found purchase in the hearts and minds of some Americans. The Know-Nothing Party in the mid-nineteenth century was organized in large part to prevent Catholics from taking our place in the public life of the United States, and anti-Catholic riots were a tool used to terrorize Catholic citizens. So, too, the Ku Klux Klan was dedicated to the persecution of Catholics alongside the persecution of African Americans. But we need not look to dark periods of our past to find such contempt for Catholics in public life and government service. Followers of the militant secular Left now openly deride Catholics in whom “the dogma lives loudly” or who belong to groups such as the Knights of Columbus, and some of those seeking to exclude Catholics from public life are now running for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. So what should we do? Stay informed. Be active in the political process. Bear witness to the Gospel. And demand that all citizens of this Republic keep our constitutional order of religious freedom.