It’s almost Christmas. Lights are up, trees are decked and, where it’s still legal, Nativity scenes are on display. This is the time of year when even high school orchestras playing carols to raise money for charity wind up being challenged by atheists who profess to be offended.
Frank Bruni recently claimed in a New York Times op-ed column that America suffers from a “God glut.” Well-meaning atheists and agnostics everywhere struggle against the pervasive presence of a deity foisted on them by a culture and even a government that just don’t get their vision of what freedom of religion ought to look like.
Freedom of religion can be defined as the ability of any individual, corporation or community to practice the tenets of faith in public or private. The First Amendment simply states that Congress shall not prohibit the “free exercise” of religion. In short, freedom of religion is a positive right. It refers to actions members of religious groups must be allowed to perform without interference from government. It also recognizes that individuals may choose freely whether or not to practice any religion at all. Yet, according to the beleaguered atheists who just can’t get away from God, the mere mention of a divine being in the public square impedes their right to choose not to believe, and hence their religious freedom.
The argument is hardly persuasive, since God’s mere presence — while perhaps annoying — is not coercion. The United States was founded as a primarily Christian nation, so God does come up in government. (As Mr. Bruni points out, he’s in our Congress, in our Pledge of Allegiance and on our printed money.) Moreover, America remains a largely Christian nation. According to a Gallup poll released earlier this month, 69 percent of American adults said they are “very or moderately religious,” while 77 percent identified as Christian. Still, none of this forces atheists to believe.
By definition, nonbelievers do not practice any religion. When they clamor for religious freedom, what they really want is for no one to practice any faith. This is not freedom of religion, but freedom from religion — a much different matter and one that has no place in our Constitution or public practice.
The concept of freedom from religion is used to advance fabricated “rights” designed to get past what some see as outdated Christian norms. What gets lost are the positive rights of believers, including the right not to pay for abortions or contraceptives when those things violate their consciences, the right of Christian pastors not to perform “marriage” ceremonies that contradict their deeply held beliefs, and the right of believers to celebrate Christmas as they wish.
Fittingly enough, toleration is the appropriate response. We do not have to like or agree with everyone’s religious practices. Certainly we do not have to practice them ourselves. We do, however, have to acknowledge the right of others to believe and practice — or not — as they see fit.
Every “victory” for one of those lone individuals who would banish religion from public spaces diminishes society. During the holiday season, their intolerance comes into stark relief as believers see their Christmas traditions attacked and dismantled. Instead of brutalizing the First Amendment, leftists ought this season to give peace a chance.
Mary Beth Baker is associate op-ed editor of The washington Times.