In a new PragerU video, Kelly Shackelford, president of First Liberty — the nation’s largest legal firm dedicated exclusively to protecting individual liberty — warns viewers of the growing threat to religious freedom in the United States.
Shackelford begins by stating that the assumed existence of religious freedom in the United States — where “you can be a Protestant, a Catholic, a Jew, a Muslim, or a Wiccan. You can believe in anything—or nothing” — is, unfortunately, no longer a reality. Now, Shackelford says, it “seems like almost every week a new dispute arises between people of faith and government agencies alleging that believers are violating the rights of non-believers, or simply violating government edicts.”
Citing Common Sense, Thomas Paine’s influential 1776 pamphlet, Shackelford points out that this newfound disregard for religious freedom is antithetical to the principles at the heart of America’s founding. Moreover, that it “wasn’t an accident” that the first freedom listed in the Bill of Rights — beginning with “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” — focuses on religious liberty.
Shackelford then compares “the two great revolutions of the 18th century,” quoting British historian Paul Johnson in order to draw a “stark and telling contrast” between the role of religion in the American and French revolutions:
The essential difference between the American Revolution and the French Revolution is that the American Revolution, in its origins, was a religious event, whereas the French Revolution was an anti-religious event. That fact was to shape the American Revolution…and determine the nature of the independent state it brought into being.
Despite being achieved as “one of the main goals of the American Revolution,” Shackelford warns that “freedom of religion” has now “morphed into freedom from religion,” thereby achieving one of the “main goals of the French Revolution.”
The danger, Shackelford argues, is that an attack on religious freedom is a “totalitarian ‘tell,’” a sign that “they’re coming for all your freedom.” This is why the Founders “were so insistent that religious liberty be in the Constitution,” since “freedom of liberty was tantamount to freedom of thought. If you aren’t free to think as you wish, you can’t claim to be free.”
Shackelford continues by drawing from historical examples of the suppression of religious freedom, and how this relates to a broader impact upon all freedoms. He discusses the closure of churches and the “control of all religious life” under Soviet rule, as well as religious limitations enforced under the Chinese communist regime.
The reason for such anti-religious sentiment, Shackelford says, is that religion “challenges the authority of the state more than any other freedom,” and that “people who adhere to a religion believe that there’s something higher than the state, and no repressive government can tolerate such a belief.”
Shackelford uses the argument that “religion is the first target of those who want ever more power” to warn everyone — even those who aren’t religious — that “if you care about freedom, you should care deeply about religious liberty.”
He concludes be providing an insight into the “troubling trends” he has noticed as he works to “protect religious liberty,” saying that “eight years ago, my case load was 47; last year it was over 300.” Shackelford provides a few recent examples, including the suspension and then termination of a Washington high school football coach for “going to a knee after a football game to say a brief, silent prayer,” an attempt by the City of Houston to “ban a small Orthodox Jewish community from worshipping in the home of its rabbi,” and a court in Maryland ordering the removal of a “peace cross” which has “stood for almost 100 years in honor of 49 young men who died fighting in World War I.”
The video ends with both a warning and cause for hope:
America is also still standing. But it won’t be for much longer, not as the free country the Founders envisioned, if we don’t take these threats to religious freedom seriously. The great historian of post-revolutionary America, Alexis de Tocqueville, understood this very well. “When…men attack religious beliefs, they are following their emotions not their interests. Tyranny may be able to do without faith, but freedom cannot.”
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