That Mitt Romney is now all but guaranteed the Republican presidential nomination surprises no one, but the primaries did produce two surprises that have important implications for the future: the emergence of religious freedom as a serious issue, and of Rick Santorum as a serious candidate. Neither will go away anytime soon.
Over the next several months, climaxing in events planned for July 4, Catholic bishops intend to press hard on their claim that healthcare regulations they oppose infringe upon religious liberty. This new activism by the Catholic Church echoes that of those who insist that limits on religious expression in such settings as schools also infringes on their religious freedom. Rhetoric during the primaries reflected those views: nearly every Republican candidate attacked Obama on religion. In a February debate, for example, Romney declared, “I don’t think we’ve seen in the history of this country the kind of attack on religious conscience, religious freedom, religious tolerance that we’ve seen under Barack Obama.” Even Ron Paul has a long history of nonlibertarian views on the question; he has said “the elitist, secular…collectivist left hates religion.”
Given the recent rhetoric and the continued activism on the issue, Romney, despite his desire to focus on the economy, may be unable to mute the issue for the general election. If he wins, the Christian right will certainly demand new policies that threaten current interpretations of the First Amendment, while if Obama wins, conservative Christians will see Santorum as a vehicle and try to make him an instant front-runner for 2016. He has already taken them closer to the nomination than such predecessors as Pat Robertson and Mike Huckabee. So whatever the November outcome, the next few years will likely mean new rhetorical and legal assaults on how courts have interpreted the First Amendment for half a century.
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Those who want to reverse court rulings such as the longstanding prohibition on school prayer and who claim the United States was founded as a Christian nation argue that the historical record supports them; they insist that, as Ron Paul has said, “the notion of a rigid separation between church and state has no basis in either the text of the Constitution or the writings of our Founding Fathers.”
They are right about one thing: the history of the idea of separating church and state is crucial to understanding the First Amendment. For that amendment did not come from mere intellectual exercise; it emerged in response to historic events. That history also demonstrates that it was no accident that the freedoms of religion, of speech, of the press, of assembly and of expressing grievances against the government were linked in the same amendment. Together they represent the essentials of liberty—the right to think as one chooses and to express that thought.
The first person to define these freedoms in a modern sense was Roger Williams, who demanded for “all men in all Nations” freedom for “the most Paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or Antichristian consciences and worships.” Best known for founding Providence, Rhode Island, Williams created there the first government in the Western world to grant full religious liberty.