By Barry Scott

It is important to honor our veterans on this day for one simple reason: in 1783, representatives of the United States and the United Kingdom signed a treaty ending the war between these two countries that enabled the freedoms we have today.

Unfortunately, there is a freedom — or rather “right” — that has been challenged perpetually since that war of revolution. It is the “right of conscience.”  Never heard the term?  Not surprising.  It is a term that was used consistently by the likes of people that were educated at the best universities in the U.S. and Europe; educated in the Enlightenment, that knew and understood the benefits of science and the danger of allowing organized religion too much power over the lives of its subjects.

They knew the history of the Holy Roman Empire, led by the Pope, as well as the power of the Anglican Church and did not wish to emulate this form of rule over its citizenry (“religion & Govt. will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together” — James Madison); they did not wish to lead this country into another “dark age” when heretics were burned and scientists jailed.  It was with this objective in mind that led Thomas Jefferson, in 1802, to pen the letter to the Danbury Baptists that contained this message:

Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peal...
Portrait of Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale in 1800. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights …”

Perhaps you noticed the phrase “rights of conscience.”  As many of the Founding Fathers believed — Jefferson, Madison, Washington, and Adams included — the right of conscience was the right of every individual to make the choice of whether to even believe in a divine creator and, if so, how to honor that belief.  Thus, freedom of religion was freedom for ALL religions. This is what Jefferson wrote in his autobiography in reference to the Preamble to the Constitution.  Indeed, what he states is, “where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting ‘Jesus Christ,’ so that it would read ‘A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;’ the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan [Muslim], the Hindoo [sic] and Infidel of every denomination.”

And while he doesn’t specifically mention it, Jefferson believed, as other Founding Fathers did, that the right of conscience protected atheists as well.  James Madison, essentially the author of the Constitution, wrote in his essay, “A Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,” that “above all are [people] to be considered as retaining an equal title to the free exercise of Religion according to the dictates of Conscience. Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and to observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us.”

Note that he, too, makes reference to the “right of conscience.”  But what Madison is saying is that while the majority of us enjoy a freedom of religion to worship God however we see fit, because the right of conscience is God-given, we cannot revoke freedom or liberty to those who aren’t convinced of the existence of God.

This is not opinion.  THIS IS FACT.  This is how Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, et al, believed.  It is why time and again the Supreme Court upholds the ideology of separation of church and state.  Even those courts, where the majority of Justices are Republican-nominated, rule in favor of this ideology.

English: stippling engraving of James Madison,...
English: stippling engraving of James Madison, President of the United States, done between 1809 and 1817. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Madison asks in a letter that he wrote to a friend in the early 1800’s, “is the appointment of Chaplains to the two Houses of Congress consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom?”  He answers, “in strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative.”  He also states, “the establishment of the chaplainship to Congress is a palpable violation of equal rights, as well as of Constitutional principles.”

So, contrary to what the conservative media or your pastor/minister will tell you…

…the phrase “under God”, added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 (the original Pledge did not contain the phrase), goes against the very principles of religious freedom set forth by the Founding Fathers and why courts have not made reciting the Pledge compulsory in schools.

…that while public school sponsored prayer violates the separation of church and state, private prayer by a student IS protected by the First Amendment.  Thus, while a school-sponsored religious organization is not allowed, a student-sponsored religious organization is.  YES, students are allowed to gather together on school grounds and read the Bible.  They’re also allowed to gather and read the Torah or Koran, if they prefer.

But, for those of you who feel that secularism is wrong, let me ask you this: how would you feel if the community you lived in was primarily non-Christian and your Christian child was forced to read the Torah, or to pray to Allah, or to meditate on Buddha? Would you tolerate that?  Why, then, do you ask that people of other faiths — or no faith at all — be required to act or believe as you do? And so, the freedom that has been challenged perpetually since that war of revolution is the “right of conscience.”  Ironically, the challenge comes from the very people who enjoy the freedom that they would deny others.

Barry Scott is an Ohio resident, and served in the United States Coast Guard.

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2 thoughts on “MEMORIAL DAY SPECIAL: A view from a veteran

  1. I loved the article wrote by Mr. Scott and would like to share this with some of my professors of Ohio University.

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