Defining Religion (Part II)

13 06 2007

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Here is part 2 of the Defining Religion post from Biblical Worldview Magazine.

Two Definitions or Only One

But the dual definitional approach to the meaning of religion in the First Amendment is not just doubtful, it is impermissible. The text reads as follows: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” (Emphasis added.) As Justice Wiley B. Rutledge wrote in Everson v. Board of Education, the single word, “religion,” “governs two prohibitions and governs them alike. It does not have two meanings, one narrow to forbid ‘an establishment’ and another, much broader, for securing ‘the free exercise thereof.’ ‘Thereof’ brings down ‘religion’ with its entire and exact content, no more and no less, from the first into the second guaranty….”

Not only does the text demand one definition of religion, so do the rules of logic. If a belief may qualify as “religion” for Free Exercise purposes, even if rooted in scientific principle, as the Court ruled in Welsh, then why should belief in evolutionary science, or any other science, not also qualify as “religion” for Establishment purposes. If the Court followed elementary rules of logic, then it should forbid the teaching of science in the public schools by anyone who embraces it as true, or by anyone who claims the scientific methodto be the key to all truth.

The Court, however, has avoided this logical dilemma by finessing the question, treating science as self-evidently “secular” and the Bible as self-evidently “religious.” Tribe has defended the Court’s habit of not defining religion in Establishment Clause cases on the ground that it gives the Court leeway to change its rulings depending upon what popular opinion considers “religiously significant.” Because people’s views change over time, the Court will never find itself bound by any precedent, having never adopted a definitive meaning of the term.

The Original Definition

But America’s founders had a very definite meaning in mind when they placed the word, religion, in the First Amendment. As Justice Hugo L. Black wrote for the majority in Everson v. Board of Education, the First Amendment religion clauses were derived specifically from the constitutional and statutory policy of one of the original thirteen states, the Commonwealth of Virginia.

Justice Black and the Court were right. Only Virginia had adopted the twin principles of free exercise and no establishment of religion. All of the other states had endorsed the policies of toleration, instead of free exercise, and of no preference, instead of no establishment.

But Justice Black ignored that Virginia had also explicitly defined religion in Article I, Section 16 of its 1776 Constitution. That Section stated that religion was “the duty that we owe to our Creator” which can only be discharged “by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.” Only after defining religion objectively, that is, in terms of the nature of the duty owed to the Creator, could Virginia’s founding statesmen have guaranteed absolute security for the free exercise of religion.

The other state constitutions afforded absolute protection for “religious worship,” or for “religious profession of sentiments,” but not for religion, per se. That religion included more than worship, and even more then profession of religious faith, was made abundantly clear in the fight that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison waged to achieve their goal to disestablish religion in Virginia.

In the preamble of his 1786 Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, Jefferson wrote that all opinions, including religious ones, were outside the jursidiction of the State. Because Almighty God had created the mind free, he concluded that the State had no power “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions,” religious or otherwise.

In support of this position, Madison wrote in his famous Memorial and Remonstrance that a man’s opinions were within the realm of religion, i.e., subject only to the Great Governor of the universe. Because all opinions, not just religious ones, were subject only to reason and conviction, they were immune from civil power. That immunity, in turn, had been secured by Article I, Section 16 of the Virginia Constitution.


The word, religion, then is a jurisdictional term designed to separate from civil power all duties owed exclusively to the Creator. Those duties, by definition, are the ones subject only to reason and conviction which, according to the revelation of the Creator, include “all truth,” not just “religious” truth. As for other duties encompassed by religion, they too are to be determined by the revealed law of the Creator, not by any individual’s profession of faith, or by popular perception, as modern Courts and commentators have claimed.




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