The Williamsburg Charter on the 1st AmendmentSigned by 100 national signers on June 25th, 1988, the 200th anniversary of Virginia's call for a Bill of Rights. The breadth of political and religious belief among the signers is impressive.
Keenly aware of the high national purpose of commemorating the bicentennial of the United States Constitution, we who sign this Charter seek to celebrate the Constitution’s greatness, and to call for a bold reaffirmation and reappraisal of its vision and guiding principles. In particular, we call for a fresh consideration of religious liberty in our time, and of the place of the First Amendment Religious Liberty clauses in our national life.
We gratefully acknowledge that the Constitution has been hailed as America’s “chief export” and “the most wonderful work ever struck off at a given time by the brain and purpose of man.” Today, two hundred years after its signing, the Constitution is not only the world’s oldest, still-effective written constitution, but the admired pattern of ordered liberty for countless people in many lands.
In spite of its enduring and universal qualities, however, some provisions of the Constitution are now the subject of widespread controversy in the United States. One area of intense controversy concerns the First Amendment Religious Liberty clauses, whose mutually reinforcing provisions act as a double guarantee of religious liberty, one part barring the making of any law “respecting an establishment of religion” and the other barring any law “prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The First Amendment Religious Liberty provisions epitomize the Constitution’s visionary realism. They were, as James Madison said, the “true remedy” to the predicament of religious conflict they originally addressed, and they well express the responsibilities and limits of the state with respect to liberty and justice.
Our commemoration of the Constitution’s bicentennial must therefore go beyond celebration to rededication. Unless this is done, an irreplaceable part of national life will be endangered, and a remarkable opportunity for the expansion of liberty will be lost.
For we judge that the present controversies over religion in public life pose both a danger and an opportunity. There is evident danger in the fact that certain forms of politically reassertive religion in parts of the world are, in principle, enemies of democratic freedom and a source of deep social antagonism. There is also evident opportunity in the growing philosophical and cultural awareness that all people live by commitments and ideals, that value-neutrality is impossible in the ordering of society, and that we are on the edge of a promising moment for a fresh assessment of pluralism and liberty. 1 It is with an eye to both the promise and the peril that we publish this Charter and pledge ourselves to its principles.
We readily acknowledge our continuing differences. Signing this Charter implies no pretense that we believe the same things or that our differences over policy proposals, legal interpretations and philosophical groundings do not ultimately matter. The truth is not even that what unites us is deeper than what divides us, for differences over belief are the deepest and least easily negotiated of all.
The Charter sets forth a renewed national compact, in the sense of a solemn mutual agreement between parties, on how we view the place of religion in American life and how we should contend with each other’s deepest differences in the public sphere. It is a call to a vision of public life that will allow conflict to lead to consensus, religious commitment to reinforce political civility. In this way, diversity is not a point of weakness but a source of strength.
A Time for Reaffirmation
We believe, in the first place, that the nature of the
Religious Liberty clauses must be understood before the
problems surrounding them can be resolved. We therefore affirm
both their cardinal assumptions and the reasons for their
crucial national importance.
1. The Inalienable Right
Nothing is more characteristic of humankind than the natural and inescapable
drive toward meaning and belonging, toward making sense of life and finding
community in the world. As fundamental and precious as life itself, this
“will to meaning” finds expression in ultimate beliefs, whether theistic or
non-theistic, transcendent or naturalistic, and these beliefs are most our
own when a matter of conviction rather than coercion. They are
most our own when, in the words of George Mason, the principal
author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, they are
“directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.”
As James Madison expressed it in his Memorial and Remonstrance,
“The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction
and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man
to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its
nature an unalienable right.
Two hundred years later, despite dramatic changes in life and a
marked increase of naturalistic philosophies in some parts of
the world and in certain sectors of our society, this right to
religious liberty based upon freedom of conscience remains
fundamental and inalienable. While particular beliefs may be
true or false, better or worse, the right to reach, hold,
exercise them freely, or change them, is basic and
Religious liberty finally depends on neither the favors of the
state and its officials nor the vagaries of tyrants or
majorities. Religious liberty in a democracy is a right that
may not be submitted to vote and depends on the outcome of no
election. A society is only as just and free as it is
respectful of this right, especially toward the beliefs of its
smallest minorities and least popular communities.
The right to freedom of conscience is premised not upon
science, nor upon social utility, nor upon pride of species.
Rather, it is premised upon the inviolable dignity of the human
person. It is the foundation of, and is integrally related to,
all other rights and freedoms secured by the Constitution. This
basic civil liberty is clearly acknowledged in the Declaration
of Independence and is ineradicable from the long tradition of
rights and liberties from which the Revolution sprang.
2. The Ever Present Danger
No threat to freedom of
conscience and religious liberty has historically been greater
than the coercions of both Church and State. These two
institutions–the one religious, the other political–have
through the centuries succumbed to the temptation of coercion
in their claims over minds and souls. When these institutions
and their claims have been combined, it has too often resulted
in terrible violations of human liberty and dignity. They are
so combined when the sword and purse of the State are in the
hands of the Church, or when the State usurps the mantle of the
Church so as to coerce the conscience and compel belief. These
and other such confusions of religion and state authority
represent the misordering of religion and government which it
is the purpose of the Religious Liberty provisions to prevent.
Authorities and orthodoxies have changed, kingdoms and empires
have come and gone, yet as John Milton once warned, “new
Presbyter is but old priest writ large.” Similarly, the modern
persecutor of religion is but ancient tyrant with more refined
instruments of control. Moreover, many of the greatest crimes
against conscience of this century have been committed, not by
religious authorities, but by ideologues virulently opposed to
Yet whether ancient or modern, issuing from religion or
ideology, the result is the same: religious and ideological
orthodoxies, when politically established, lead only too
naturally toward what Roger Williams called a “spiritual rape”
that coerces the conscience and produces “rivers of civil
blood” that stain the record of human history.
Less dramatic but also lethal to freedom and the chief menace
to religious liberty today is the expanding power of government
control over personal behavior and the institutions of society,
when the government acts not so much in deliberate hostility
to, but in reckless disregard of, communal belief and personal
Thanks principally to the wisdom of the First Amendment, the
American experience is different. But even in America where
state-established orthodoxies are unlawful and the state is
constitutionally limited, religious liberty can never be taken
for granted. It is a rare achievement that requires constant
3. The Most Nearly Perfect Solution
Knowing well that “nothing
human can be perfect” (James Madison) and that the Constitution was not
“a faultless work” (Gouverneur Morris), the Framers nevertheless saw
the First Amendment as a “true remedy” and the most nearly perfect
solution yet devised for properly ordering the relationship of
religion and the state in a free society.
There have been occasions when the protections of the First
Amendment have been overridden or imperfectly applied.
Nonetheless, the First Amendment is a momentous decision for
religious liberty, the most important political decision for
religious liberty and public justice in the history of
humankind. Limitation upon religious liberty is allowable only
where the State has borne a heavy burden of proof that the
limitation is justified — not by any ordinary public interest,
but by a supreme public necessity — and that no less restrictive
alternative to limitation exists.
The Religious Liberty clauses are a brilliant construct in
which both No establishment and Free exercise serve the ends of
religious liberty and freedom of conscience. No longer can
sword, purse and sacred mantle be equated. Now, the government
is barred from using religion’s mantle to become a confessional
State, and from allowing religion to use the government’s sword
and purse to become a coercing Church. In this new order, the
freedom of the government from religious control and the
freedom of religion from government control are a double
guarantee of the protection of rights. No faith is preferred or
prohibited, for where there is no state-definable orthodoxy,
there can be no state-punishable heresy.
With regard to the reasons why the First Amendment Religious
Liberty clauses are important for the nation today, we hold
five to be pre-eminent:
- The First Amendment Religious Liberty provisions have
both a logical and historical priority in the Bill of Rights. They have logical priority because the security of all
rights rests upon the recognition that they are neither given
by the state, nor can they be taken away by the state. Such
rights are inherent in the inviolability of the human person.
History demonstrates that unless these rights are protected our
society’s slow, painful progress toward freedom would not have
- The First Amendment Religious Liberty provisions lie
close to the heart of the distinctiveness of the American
experiment. The uniqueness of the American way of
disestablishment and its consequences have often been more
obvious to foreign observers such as Alexis de Tocqueville and
Lord James Bryce, who wrote that “of all the differences
between the Old world and the New, this is perhaps the most
salient.” In particular, the Religious Liberty clauses are
vital to harnessing otherwise centrifugal forces such as
personal liberty and social diversity, thus sustaining
republican vitality while making possible a necessary measure
of national concord.
- The First Amendment Religious Liberty provisions are the
democratic world’s most salient alternative to the totalitarian
repression of human rights and provide a corrective to
unbridled nationalism and religious warfare around the world.
- The First Amendment Religious Liberty provisions provide
the United States’ most distinctive answer to one of the
world’s most pressing questions in the late-twentieth century.
They address the problem: How do we live with each other’s
deepest differences? How do religious convictions and
political freedom complement rather than threaten each other on
a small planet in a pluralistic age? In a world in which
bigotry, fanaticism, terrorism and the state control of
religion are all too common responses to these questions,
sustaining the justice and liberty of the American arrangement
is an urgent moral task.
- The First Amendment Religious Liberty provisions give
American society a unique position in relation to both the
First and Third worlds. Highly modernized like the rest of
the First World, yet not so secularized, this society–largely
because of religious freedom — remains, like most of the Third
World, deeply religious. This fact, which is critical for
possibilities of better human understanding, has not been
sufficiently appreciated in American self-understanding, or
drawn upon in American diplomacy and communication throughout
In sum, as much if not more than any other single provision in
the entire Constitution, the Religious Liberty provisions hold
the key to American distinctiveness and American destiny. Far
from being settled by the interpretations of judges and
historians, the last word on the First Amendment likely rests
in a chapter yet to be written, documenting the unfolding drama
of America. If religious liberty is neglected, all civil
liberties will suffer. If it is guarded and sustained, the
American experiment will be the more secure.
A Time for Reappraisal
Much of the current controversy about religion and politics
neither reflects the highest wisdom of the First Amendment nor
serves the best interests of the disputants or the nation. We
therefore call for a critical reappraisal of the course and
consequences of such controversy. Four widespread errors have
exacerbated the controversy needlessly.
1. The Issue Is Not Only What We Debate, But How
The debate about religion in public life is too often
misconstrued as a clash of ideologies alone, pitting
“secularists” against the “sectarians” or vice versa. Though
competing and even contrary worldviews are involved, the
controversy is not solely ideological. It also flows from a
breakdown in understanding of how personal and communal beliefs
should be related to public life.
The American republic depends upon the answers to two
questions. By what ultimate truths ought we to live? And how
should these be related to public life? The first question is
personal, but has a public dimension because of the connection
between beliefs and public virtue. The American answer to the
first question is that the government is excluded from giving
an answer. The second question, however, is thoroughly public
in character, and a public answer is appropriate and necessary
to the well-being of this society.
This second question was central to the idea of the First
Amendment. The Religious Liberty provisions are not “articles
of faith” concerned with the substance of particular doctrines
or of policy issues. They are “articles of peace” concerned
with the constitutional constraints and the shared prior
understanding within which the American people can engage their
differences in a civil manner and thus provide for both
religious liberty and stable public governmen
t.Conflicts over the relationship between deeply held beliefs and
public policy will remain a continuing feature of democratic
life. They do not discredit the First Amendment, but confirm
its wisdom and point to the need to distinguish the Religious
Liberty clauses from the particular controversies they address.
The clauses can never be divorced from the controversies they
address, but should always be held distinct. In the public
discussion, an open commitment to the constraints and standards
of the clauses should precede and accompany debate over the
2. The Issue Is Not Sectarian, But National
The role of religion in American public life is too often
devalued or dismissed in public debate, as though the American
people’s historically vital religious traditions were at best a
purely private matter and at worst essentially sectarian and
Such a position betrays a failure of civil respect for the
convictions of others. It also underestimates the degree to
which the Framers relied on the American people’s religious
convictions to be what Tocqueville described as “the first of
their political institutions.” In America, this crucial public
role has been played by diverse beliefs, not so much despite
disestablishment as because of disestablishment.
The Founders knew well that the republic they established
represented an audacious gamble against long historical odds.
This form of government depends upon ultimate beliefs, for
otherwise we have no right to the rights by which it thrives,
yet rejects any official formulation of them. The republic will
therefore always remain an “undecided experiment” that stands
or falls by the dynamism of its non-established faiths.
3. The Issue Is Larger Than the Disputants
Recent controversies over religion and public life have too
often become a form of warfare in which individuals, motives
and reputations have been impugned. The intensity of the debate
is commensurate with the importance of the issues debated, but
to those engaged in this warfare we present two arguments for
reappraisal and restraint.
The lesser argument is one of expediency and is based on the
ironic fact that each side has become the best argument for the
other. One side’s excesses have become the other side’s
arguments; one side’s extremists the other side’s recruiters.
The danger is that, as the ideological warfare becomes
self-perpetuating, more serious issues and broader national
interests will be forgotten and the bitterness deepened.
The more important argument is one of principle and is based on
the fact that the several sides have pursued their objectives
in ways which contradict their own best ideals. Too often, for
example, religious believers have been uncharitable, liberals
have been illiberal, conservatives have been insensitive to
tradition, champions of tolerance have been intolerant,
defenders of free speech have been censorious, and citizens of
a republic based on democratic accommodation have succumbed to
a habit of relentless confrontation.
4. The Issue Is Understandably Threatening
The First Amendment’s meaning is too often debated in ways that
ignore the genuine grievances or justifiable fears of opposing
points of view. This happens when the logic of opposing
arguments favors either an unwarranted intrusion of religion
into public life or an unwarranted exclusion of religion from
it. History plainly shows that with religious control over
government, political freedom dies; with political control over
religion, religious freedom dies.
The First Amendment has contributed to avoiding both these
perils, but this happy experience is no cause for complacency.
Though the United States has escaped the worst excesses
experienced elsewhere in the world, the republic has shown two
distinct tendencies of its own, one in the past and one today.
In earlier times, though lasting well into the twentieth
century, there was a de facto semi-establishment of one
religion in the United States: a generalized Protestantism
given dominant status in national institutions, especially in
the public schools. This development was largely approved by
Protestants, but widely opposed by non-Protestants, including
Catholics and Jews.
In more recent times, and partly in reaction, constitutional
jurisprudence has tended, in the view of many, to move toward
the de facto semi-establishment of a wholly secular
understanding of the origin, nature and destiny of humankind
and of the American nation. During this period, the exclusion
of teaching about the role of religion in society, based partly
upon a misunderstanding of First Amendment decisions, has
ironically resulted in giving a dominant status to such wholly
secular understandings in many national institutions. Many
secularists appear as unconcerned over the consequences of this
development as were Protestants unconcerned about their de
facto establishment earlier.
Such de facto establishments, though seldom extreme, usually
benign and often unwitting, are the source of grievances and
fears among the several parties in current controversies.
Together with the encroachments of the expanding modern state,
such de facto establishments, as much as any official
establishment, are likely to remain a threat to freedom and
justice for all.
Justifiable fears are raised by those who advocate theocracy or
the coercive power of law to establish a “Christian America.”
While this advocacy is and should be legally protected, such
proposals contradict freedom of conscience and the genius of
the Religious Liberty provisions.
At the same time there are others who raise justifiable fears
of an unwarranted exclusion of religion from public life. The
assertion of moral judgments as though they were morally
neutral, and interpretations of the “wall of separation” that
would exclude religious expression and argument from public
life, also contradict freedom of conscience and the genius of
Civility obliges citizens in a pluralistic society to take
great care in using words and casting issues. The
communications media have a primary role, and thus a special
responsibility, in shaping public opinion and debate. Words
such as public, secular and religious should be free from
discriminatory bias. “Secular purpose,” for example, should not
mean “non-religious purpose” but “general public purpose.”
Otherwise, the impression is gained that “public is equivalent
to secular; religion is equivalent to private.” Such equations
are neither accurate nor just. Similarly, it is false to equate
“public” and “governmental.” In a society that sets store by
the necessary limits on government, there are many spheres of
life that are public but non-governmental.
Two important conclusions follow from a reappraisal of the
present controversies over religion in public life. First, the
process of adjustment and readjustment to the constraints and
standards of the Religious Liberty provisions is an ongoing
requirement of American democracy. The Constitution is not a
self-interpreting, self-executing document; and the
prescriptions of the Religious Liberty provisions cannot by
themselves resolve the myriad confusions and ambiguities
surrounding the right ordering of the relationship between
religion and government in a free society. The Framers clearly
understood that the Religious Liberty provisions provide the
legal construct for what must be an ongoing process of
adjustment and mutual give-and-take in a democracy.
We are keenly aware that, especially over state-supported
education, we as a people must continue to wrestle with the
complex connections between religion and the transmission of
moral values in a pluralistic society. Thus, we cannot have,
and should not seek, a definitive, once for all solution to the
questions that will continue to surround the Religious Liberty
Second, the need for such a readjustment today can best be
addressed by remembering that the two clauses are essentially
one provision for preserving religious liberty. Both parts, No
establishment and Free exercise, are to be comprehensively
understood as being in the service of religious liberty as a
positive good. At the heart of the Establishment clause is the
prohibition of state sponsorship of religion and at the heart
of Free Exercise clause is the prohibition of state
interference with religious liberty.
No sponsorship means that the state must leave to the free
citizenry the public expression of ultimate beliefs, religious
or otherwise, providing only that no expression is excluded
from, and none governmentally favored, in the continuing
No interference means the assurance of voluntary religious
expression free from governmental intervention. This includes
placing religious expression on an equal footing with all other
forms of expression in genuinely public forums.
No sponsorship and no interference together mean fair
opportunity. That is to say, all faiths are free to enter
vigorously into public life and to exercise such influence as
their followers and ideas engender. Such democratic exercise of
influence is in the best tradition of American voluntarism and
is not an unwarranted “imposition” or “establishment.”
A Time for Reconstitution
We believe, finally, that the time is ripe for a genuine
expansion of democratic liberty, and that this goal may be
attained through a new engagement of citizens in a debate that
is reordered in accord with constitutional first principles and
considerations of the common good. This amounts to no less than
the reconstitution of a free republican people in our day.
Careful consideration of three precepts would advance this
The Criteria Must Be Multiple:
Reconstitution requires the recognition that the great dangers
in interpreting the Constitution today are either to release
interpretation from any demanding criteria or to narrow the
criteria excessively. The first relaxes the necessary
restraining force of the Constitution, while the second
overlooks the insights that have arisen from the Constitution
in two centuries of national experience.
Religious liberty is the only freedom in the First Amendment to
be given two provisions. Together the clauses form a strong
bulwark against suppression of religious liberty, yet they
emerge from a series of dynamic tensions which cannot
ultimately be relaxed. The Religious Liberty provisions grow
out of an understanding not only of rights and a due
recognition of faiths but of realism and a due recognition of
factions. They themselves reflect both faith and skepticism.
They raise questions of equality and liberty, majority rule and
minority rights, individual convictions and communal tradition.
The Religious Liberty provisions must be understood both in
terms of the Framers’ intentions and history’s sometimes
surprising results. Interpreting and applying them today
requires not only historical research but moral and political
The intention of the Framers is therefore a necessary but
insufficient criterion for interpreting and applying the
Constitution. But applied by itself, without any consideration
of immutable principles of justice, the intention can easily be
wielded as a weapon for governmental or sectarian causes, some
quoting Jefferson and brandishing No establishment and others
citing Madison and brandishing Free exercise. Rather, we must
take the purpose and text of the Constitution seriously,
sustain the principles behind the words and add an appreciation
of the many-sided genius of the First Amendment and its complex
development over time.
The Consensus Must Be Dynamic:
Reconstitution requires a shared understanding of the
relationship between the Constitution and the society it is to
serve. The Framers understood that the Constitution is more
than parchment and ink. The principles embodied in the document
must be affirmed in practice by a free people since these
principles reflect everything that constitutes the essential
forms and substance of their society–the institutions, customs
and ideals as well as the laws. Civic vitality and the
effectiveness of law can be undermined when they overlook this
broader cultural context of the Constitution.
Notable, in this connection is the striking absence today of
any national consensus about religious liberty as a positive
good. Yet religious liberty is indisputably what the Framers
intended and what the First Amendment has preserved. Far from
being a matter of exemption, exception or even toleration,
religious liberty is an inalienable right. Far from being a
sub-category of free speech or a constitutional redundancy,
religious liberty is distinct and foundational. Far from being
simply an individual right, religious liberty is a positive
social good. Far from denigrating religion as a social or
political “problem,” the separation of Church and State is both
the saving of religion from the temptation of political power
and an achievement inspired in large part by religion itself.
Far from weakening religion, disestablishment has, as an
historical fact, enabled it to flourish.
In light of the First Amendment, the government should stand in
relation to the churches, synagogues and other communities of
faith as the guarantor of freedom. In light of the First
Amendment, the churches, synagogues and other communities of
faith stand in relation to the government as generators of
faith, and therefore contribute to the spiritual and moral
foundations of democracy. Thus, the government acts as a
safeguard, but not the source, of freedom for faiths, whereas
the churches and synagogues act as a source, but not the
safeguard, of faiths for freedom.
The Religious Liberty provisions work for each other and for
the federal idea as a whole. Neither established nor excluded,
neither preferred nor proscribed, each faith (whether
transcendent or naturalistic) is brought into a relationship
with the government so that each is separated from the state in
terms of its institutions, but democratically related to the
state in terms of individuals and its ideas.
The result is neither a naked public square where all religion
is excluded, nor a sacred public square with any religion
established or semi-established. The result, rather, is a civil
public square in which citizens of all religious faiths, or
none, engage one another in the continuing democratic
The Compact Must Be Mutual:
Reconstitution of a free republican people requires the
recognition that religious liberty is a universal right joined
to a universal duty to respect that right.
In the turns and twists of history, victims of religious
discrimination have often later become perpetrators. In the
famous image of Roger Williams, those at the helm of the Ship
of State forget they were once under the hatches. They have, he
said, One weight for themselves when they are under the
hatches, and another for others when they come to the helm.”
They show themselves, said James Madison, “as ready to set up
an establishment which is to take them in as they were to pull
down that which shut them out.” Thus, benignly or otherwise,
Protestants have treated Catholics as they were once treated,
and secularists have done likewise with both.
Such inconsistencies are the natural seedbed for the growth of
a de facto establishment. Against such inconsistencies we
affirm that a right for one is a right for another and a
responsibility for all. A right for a Protestant is a right for
an Orthodox is a right for a Catholic is a right for a Jew is a
right for a Humanist is a right for a Mormon is a right for a
Muslim is a right for a Buddhist–and for the followers of any
other faith within the wide bounds of the republic.
That rights are universal and responsibilities mutual is both
the premise and the promise of democratic pluralism. The First
Amendment, in this sense, is the epitome of public justice and
serves as the Golden Rule for civic life. Rights are best
guarded and responsibilities best exercised when each person
and group guards for all others those rights they wish guarded
for themselves. Whereas the wearer of the English crown is
officially the Defender of the Faith, all who uphold the
American Constitution are defenders of the rights of all
From this axiom, that rights are universal and responsibilities
mutual, derives guidelines for conducting public debates
involving religion in a manner that is democratic and civil.
These guidelines are not, and must not be, mandated by law. But
they are, we believe, necessary to reconstitute and revitalize
the American understanding of the role of religion in a free
First, those who claim the right to dissent should assume
the responsibility to debate: Commitment to democratic
pluralism assumes the coexistence within one political
community of groups whose ultimate faith commitments may be
incompatible, yet whose common commitment to social unity and
diversity does justice to both the requirements of individual
conscience and the wider community. A general consent to the
obligations of citizenship is therefore inherent in the
American experiment, both as a founding principle (“We the
people”) and as a matter of daily practice.
There must always be room for those who do not wish to
participate in the public ordering of our common life, who
desire to pursue their own religious witness separately as
conscience dictates. But at the same time, for those who do
wish to participate, it should be understood that those
claiming the right to dissent should assume the responsibility
to debate. As this responsibility is exercised, the
characteristic American formula of individual liberty
complemented by respect for the opinions of others permits
differences to be asserted, yet a broad, active community of
understanding to be sustained.
Second, those who claim the right to criticize should assume
the responsibility to comprehend: One of the ironies of
democratic life is that freedom of conscience is jeopardized by
false tolerance as well as by outright intolerance. Genuine
tolerance considers contrary views fairly and judges them on
merit. Debased tolerance so refrains from making any judgment
that it refuses to listen at all. Genuine tolerance honestly
weighs honest differences and promotes both impartiality and
pluralism. Debased tolerance results in indifference to the
differences that vitalize a pluralistic democracy.
Central to the difference between genuine and debased tolerance
is the recognition that peace and truth must be held in
tension. Pluralism must not be confused with, and is in fact
endangered by, philosophical and ethical indifference.
Commitment to strong, clear philosophical and ethical ideas
need not imply either intolerance or opposition to democratic
pluralism. On the contrary, democratic pluralism requires an
agreement to be locked in public argument over disagreements of
consequence within the bonds of civility.
The right to argue for any public policy is a fundamental right
for every citizen; respecting that right is a fundamental
responsibility for all other citizens. When any view is
expressed, all must uphold as constitutionally protected its
advocate’s right to express it. But others are free to
challenge that view as politically pernicious, philosophically
false, ethically evil, theologically idolatrous, or simply
absurd, as the case may be seen to be.
Unless this tension between peace and truth is respected,
civility cannot be sustained. In that event, tolerance
degenerates into either apathetic relativism or a dogmatism as
uncritical of itself as it is uncomprehending of others. The
result is a general corruption of principled public debate.
Third, those who claim the right to influence should accept
the responsibility not to inflame: Too often in recent
disputes over religion and public affairs, some have insisted
that any evidence of religious influence on public policy
represents an establishment of religion and is therefore
precluded as an improper “imposition.” Such exclusion of
religion from public life is historically unwarranted,
philosophically inconsistent and profoundly undemocratic. The
Framers’ intention is indisputably ignored when public policy
debates can appeal to the theses of Adam Smith and Karl Marx,
or Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud but not to the Western
religious tradition in general and the Hebrew and Christian
Scriptures in particular. Many of the most dynamic social
movements in American history, including that of civil rights,
were legitimately inspired and shaped by religious motivation.
Freedom of conscience and the right to influence public policy
on the basis of religiously informed ideas are inseverably
linked. In short, a key to democratic renewal is the fullest
possible participation in the most open possible debate.
Religious liberty and democratic civility are also threatened,
however, from another quarter. Overreacting to an improper veto
on religion in public life, many have used religious language
and images not for the legitimate influencing of policies but
to inflame politics. Politics is indeed an extension of ethics
and therefore engages religious principles; but some err by
refusing to recognize that there is a distinction, though not a
separation, between religion and politics. As a result, they
bring to politics a misplaced absoluteness that idolizes
politics, “Satanizes” their enemies and politicizes their own
Even the most morally informed policy positions involve
prudential judgments as well as pure principle. Therefore, to
make an absolute equation of principles and policies inflates
politics and does violence to reason, civil life and faith
itself. Politics has recently been inflamed by a number of
confusions: the confusion of personal religious affiliation
with qualification or disqualification for public office; the
confusion of claims to divine guidance with claims to divine
endorsement; and the confusion of government neutrality among
faiths with government indifference or hostility to religion.
Fourth, those who claim the right to participate should
accept the responsibility to persuade: Central to the
American experience is the power of political persuasion.
Growing partly from principle and partly from the pressures of
democratic pluralism, commitment to persuasion is the corollary
of the belief that conscience is inviolable, coercion of
conscience is evil, and the public interest is best served by
consent hard won from vigorous debate. Those who believe
themselves privy to the will of history brook no argument and
need never tarry for consent. But to those who subscribe to the
idea of government by the consent of the governed, compelled
beliefs are a violation of first principles. The natural logic
of the Religious Liberty provisions is to foster a political
culture of persuasion which admits the challenge of opinions
from all sources.
Arguments for public policy should be more than private
convictions shouted out loud. For persuasion to be principled,
private convictions should be translated into publicly
accessible claims. Such public claims should be made publicly
accessible for two reasons: first, because they must engage
those who do not share the same private convictions, and
second, because they should be directed toward the common good.
Renewal of First Principles
We who live in the third century of the American republic can
learn well from the past as we look to the future. Our Founders
were both idealists and realists. Their confidence in human
abilities was tempered by their skepticism about human nature.
Aware of what was new in their times, they also knew the need
for renewal in times after theirs. “No free government, or the
blessings of liberty,” wrote George Mason in 1776, “can be
preserved to any people, but by a firm adherence to justice,
moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue, and by frequent
recurrence to fundamental principles.”
True to the ideals and realism of that vision, we who sign this
Charter, people of many and various beliefs, pledge ourselves
to the enduring precepts of the First Amendment as the
cornerstone of the American experiment in liberty under law.
We address ourselves to our fellow citizens, daring to hope
that the strongest desire of the greatest number is for the
common good. We are firmly persuaded that the principles
asserted here require a fresh consideration, and that the
renewal of religious liberty is crucial to sustain a free
people that would remain free. We therefore commit ourselves to
speak, write and act according to this vision and these
principles. We urge our fellow citizens to do the same.
To agree on such guiding principles and to achieve such a
compact will not be easy. Whereas a law is a command directed
to us, a compact is a promise that must proceed freely from us.
To achieve it demands a measure of the vision, sacrifice and
perseverance shown by our Founders. Their task was to defy the
past, seeing and securing religious liberty against the
terrible precedents of history. Ours is to challenge the
future, sustaining vigilance and broadening protections against
every new menace, including that of our own complacency.
Knowing the unquenchable desire for freedom, they lit a beacon.
It is for us who know its blessings to keep it burning