As two days of national commemoration approach, Religious Freedom Day (Saturday) and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day (Monday), Americans would do well to consider the unbreakable link between the two and the lesson available in their chronological observance. The Latin phrase, post hoc ergo propter hoc, meaning "after this, therefore because of this," is often derided as a logical fallacy. However, celebrating Dr. King’s life and legacy after honoring religious freedom’s contribution to American civil society may be the exception which proves the rule.
Without the modicum of freedom he possessed, endowed to him by his Creator and protected by the First Amendment, Dr. King may not have been able to issue the clarion call to his countrymen to succeed where their forefathers had failed, live up to the uniquely American promise, and deliver the rest of the freedoms denied to him and so many others.
In doing so, he took his place alongside pilgrims, pastors, and preachers of varying denominations who throughout American history led the way for every major social reform aimed toward a “more perfect union.” Whether it was the cause of American independence in the eighteenth century, the abolition of slavery in the nineteenth century, or the civil rights movement of the twentieth century, each time America’s conscience found her voice, it thundered from a righteous pulpit.
To be sure, these causes were not universally popular at the time and found antagonists in American pulpits as well. And yet, because of the freedom of religion and the freedom of speech afforded to all viewpoints, the debate was allowed to carry on until truth prevailed over heresy. We are all better for it.
Today, secularist zealots seek to purge public discourse of all religious expression and confine religious freedom within the four walls of a sanctuary or to the hearts and minds of the faithful, never exercised in public. Often, instead of pointing to the faith that motivated Dr. King as a force for positive change, they blame religion – and in particular the religious – for the pathologies that continue to threaten our republic.
But in doing so, they turn a blind eye to the role of religion not only in preserving but improving civil society. If people of faith find no protection for a life lived according to conscience, then fewer hungry will be fed, fewer homeless will be sheltered, fewer orphans will be homed. If placing eternal value above the temporal is subject to the fleeting whims of popular culture or political power, then the task of forever striving to make tomorrow better than yesterday will lose its most powerful ally – inspiration.
Our founding fathers knew that because all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights, the first duty of mankind is the expression of gratitude to the Creator. This is the essence of worship. The founders also knew it was not for government to decide how or if that gratitude would be expressed. Any attempt to compel all men to one way of thinking or acting upon conscience would be an exercise in vanity and folly. Hence the first two clauses of the First Amendment.
The establishment clause made it clear there would be no official state-sponsored church and the free exercise clause ensured government would not restrict people of faith from incorporating faith into all aspects of their daily lives – commerce, education, and civic responsibility to name a few. By doing so, they acknowledged that imperfect men could never create a perfect country, but where freedom and morality flourished a country, could always be better.
In America, there is always potential and opportunity for improvement. It was the beginning of the American dream. It was the authoritative foundation upon which Dr. King rested his dream. So, as we approach Religious Freedom Day and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, let us recommit ourselves to bringing those dreams to fruition.
Lathan Watts is Director of Public Affairs for First Liberty Institute, a non-profit law firm and think tank exclusively dedicated to defending religious liberty for all Americans.