America has long been a bastion of religious schizophrenia. The latest example of our religious dysfunction occurred last week. As the nation observed a congressionally-enacted National Day of Prayer, the Pentagon affirmed its policy of allowing "evangelism" and prohibiting "proselytizing" within the enlisted ranks. Since one person's "proselytizing" is another person's "evangelism," an enlisted soldier could have conceivably been court-martialed for observing a federal holiday while on duty.
We accomplish this absurdity with the best of intentions. In an attempt to salve the wounds of those most easily offended on both sides of the aisle, we draw fine distinctions regarding who may and may not exercise religious freedoms based on their public or private status. The result is an amalgamation of rules and regulations no average citizen can comprehend.
What if there was a better way? What if the First Amendment actually meant what it said when the text states, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof?" When stripped of over a century of convoluted jurisprudence that has only served to muddy the First Amendment waters, the text of the First Amendment provides a system of belief worthy of a moral, yet tolerant, people. The text clearly states that only Congress, in its official capacity as the legislative body of the federal government, should be muzzled regarding religion. Every other individual and entity (without regard to its public or private status) should be free to express as much, or as little, faith as he, she, or it pleases.
Practically speaking, this approach entails wholesale changes in the way in which we discuss religion in America. An environment of freedom is the ideal forum for an open and unconstrained debate regarding religion. In that environment, ideas without a constituency would slowly fade into irrelevancy. There would be no rules to artificially privilege the advocates of secularised public policy (which, make no mistake, is a moral system akin to a religion) over atheism, Buddhism, or any other –ism. The federal government would exercise genuine tolerance and neutrality on all ideas regarding faith. Instead of favoring churches through tax breaks or forcing churches to provide medical services against the tenets of their faith, Congress would simply have no voice in those matters. If Rhode Island decided to become an Islamic theocracy (as it could do, as the First Amendment was not originally operative against state governments) within its state government functions and persecute Buddhists, then Buddhists would have the option of moving to the atheistic republic of Kentucky.
We can learn from the awkward convergence of circumstances last week. Currently, our religious freedoms rest on the whim of nine unelected Justices or 535 elected national representatives. However, our rights should resemble bold strokes instead of fine print. A soldier, or anyone else, should be able to serve the dictates of their conscience, not the directives of the federal government, without the spectre of reprisal. Only a willingness to think beyond the current system will rescue us from the nonsense that currently serves as our public policy. Anything less will serve neither the sinner nor the saint.