There’s a critique against religious liberty that goes like this: Religion is a matter of someone’s personal choice, so why protect religious freedom as a constitutional right if it’s merely a matter of someone’s choice?
This is a criticism usually made by secularists who want to weaken the value of religion and the protection it has historically been given.
First, it’s worth acknowledging the important assumption operating in this criticism—that religion is just a mere choice or preference that one could take or leave. Is that true? Unless we address how a person grasps religion, and how religion functions in a person’s life, much misunderstanding will follow on why it’s worth protecting at all if we do not first arrive at the question of whether religion is just a matter of preference.
So, is religion merely a matter of personal preference or choice? The answer is a strong “no.”
Thomas Jefferson famous wrote in the preamble of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, “The opinions and belief of men depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their own minds.”
Jefferson’s quip is exactly right, but what does he mean? Jefferson is arguing that convictions—religious or not, for that matter—are not grasped by sheer happenstance. Our deepest convictions do not arise haphazardly. The love that a father has for his child is not the same type of conviction that the same father has for what his favorite soft drink is.
No, what Jefferson is arguing is that people arrive at their deepest convictions by these convictions being impressed upon them by their consciences. It follows, then, that people do not so much casually choose to live their life following path “A” but that living path “B” becomes simply impossible. Path “B” could not be lived without great fragmentation and personal integrity being violated. If path “A” is the path of liberty and authenticity, path “B” is the path of coercion and dishonesty.
What Jefferson is arguing is that people are gripped by truths that are so persuasive and powerful that it become impossible to not believe such truths and to live faithfully in accordance with those truths. We apprehend truths and constitute or order our lives, individually and communally, by these truths.
Religion is not a “choice” as though one prefers Coke to Pepsi. Religion, and the constitutional protections historically afforded it, are entailments that follow from someone apprehending the deepest truths and convictions about ultimate reality that one cannot help but live faithfully.
People do not sacrifice their lives for preferences. They do, however, for their convictions—religious or otherwise (think of the bravery of a soldier as well as the religious martyr). The genius of the American experiment is that our Founders understood that government should voluntarily restrict itself from adjudicating whether a person’s convictions, arrived at by deliberation, are right or wrong (unless, of course, harm to civil society ensues). It’s why the protections afforded to speech and religion are in the First Amendment. The Founders understood that a free society requires allowing citizens to live in accordance with the truths impressed upon their consciences—not their mere “choices.”