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Old-time forbearance


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There are none blinder than those who claim to see discrimination against Christians in American politics. Himalayas of evidence to the contrary cannot dissuade them — not even this year's presidential primaries, which have often seemed more designed to choose a parson than a president. Though they seek a secular office, the candidates spend much of their time quoting Bible verses; the Bill of Rights, with its promise of religious freedom, is scarcely mentioned. This is regrettable, but not entirely unexpected, since the incumbent was elected in part because he was ostentatiously religious. In office, he's proved ostentatiously inept, but that's little-noticed by people who vote for the candidate most doctrinally sound in fundamentalist Christianity.

Religious discrimination exists, certainly, but not against the Christian majority. Let a candidate for any public office in America confess to being a nonbeliever, as many Americans are, and he's not only assured of defeat and ostracism, he's likely to be physically assaulted.

And the vigilantes on his trail would sing their tired old song about how freedom of religion doesn't mean freedom from religion. It does, or course, or it means nothing at all. As Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, only 20 years ago, when tolerance was more fashionable:

“Just as the right to speak and the right to refrain from speaking are complementary components of a broader concept of individual freedom of mind, so also the individual's freedom to choose his own creed is the counterpart of his right to refrain from accepting the creed established by the majority. At one time it was thought that this right merely proscribed the preference of one Christian sect over another, but would not require equal respect for the conscience of the infidel, the atheist, or the adherent of a non-Christian faith such as Islam or Judaism. But when the underlying principle has been examined in the crucible of litigation, the Court has unambiguously concluded that the individual freedom of conscience protected by the First Amendment embraces the right to select any religious faith or none at all. This conclusion derives support not only from the interest in respecting the individual's freedom of conscience, but also from the conviction that religious beliefs worthy of respect are the product of free and voluntary choice by the faithful, and from recognition of the fact that the political interest in forestalling intolerance extends beyond intolerance among Christian sects — or even intolerance among ‘religions' — to encompass intolerance of the disbeliever and the uncertain.”

America will never hear anything like that from Justice Scalia, and Americans will be less free because of it.


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