MARY REICHARD, HOST: Next up on The World and Everything in It: a lesson on America’s founding.
NICK EICHER, HOST: Joe Loconte teaches history at The King’s College in New York City. He often writes and speaks about the importance of the Bible in America’s beginning. In fact, he considers it our country’s third founding document, next to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
REICHARD: On this week’s Listening In, host Warren Smith talks to Joe Loconte about the role of religious liberty in American democracy. Let’s listen now to an excerpt.
WARREN SMITH: Joe, I don’t have to tell you that, um, that we’re fighting religious liberty battles today, right? So what could we learn from what you studied about our founding to help us with some of these issues today?
JOE LOCONTE: I think if there’s one principle that seems to me that helps to explain the success of the American experiment, meaning our ability to have such a religiously diverse country with an amazing degree of stability, political and social stability. What explains that? Equal justice under the law for people of all religious beliefs or of no religious belief. So we treat people equally in the eyes of the law and we respect their deepest held religious convictions in the public space.
SMITH: Well, and we do that, I think you would argue, and I’m going to argue it right now and you can refute me if I’m wrong. We do that because we believe that each human is made in the image of likeness of God and for that reason alone is worthy of dignity.
LOCONTE: Yes. I mean, that has always been the strongest foundation that seems to me for religious freedom, for, for equal rights, for making any claim for human dignity is to ground it in something transcendent and belief in God. It can be done outside of that. It has been done. There are many, uh, agnostics and secular people who will make an argument for, for human dignity. But boy, oh boy, you really can’t build this democratic republic on the, on the backs of our atheist friends. It’s not going to work. You’ve got to go back to something transcendent, something deeply rooted, I think, in our religious tradition.
SMITH: Well, one of the ways that the founding fathers ensconced that idea into the other two founding documents was in the First Amendment to the Constitution, where we have a freedom of the press, we have freedom of assembly, we have freedom of speech side by side in the same amendment with religious liberty. So therefore, would it be fair to say that they’re inseparable?
LOCONTE: Yes. I would even augment what you said in this way. When Madison, who was the great architect of the Constitution and the First Amendment in particular, when Madison puts religious liberty as the first of those freedoms in the First Amendment, he does that, I think, for a philosophical and theological reason, meaning freedom of conscience is the foundational freedom. Because think about the other freedoms—speech, assembly, petitioning the government—they grow out of our conscience, our sense of what’s right and wrong, informed by our religious beliefs. So freedom of conscience is the prior freedom.