Think of the ideological distance between Muhammad Ali, Sun Moon, and Marabel Morgan. Then give thanks. Not for plurality as such, but for the principle that, in the very existence of such a range of beliefs, shows itself to be alive and well. No aspect of America presents more cause for gratitude than the generous measure of religious liberty enjoyed by its citizenry.

Some of the best minds on the American religious scene spent the better part of a Bicentennial week in Philadelphia in behalf of religious liberty. They found the Bicentennial Conference on Religious Liberty not only a celebratory occasion but a demanding intellectual exercise as well.

How does religious liberty relate to God’s transcendence, natural law, the civil religion, and original sin?

Temple University professor Franklin Littell wisely reminded the 300 conferees that for all our love of liberty, we know that it is not an end in itself. “Liberty is penultimate,” said Littell. “The end is truth.”

Freedom of religion should nonetheless be a basic right in a society in which church and state are constitutionally separate. Unfortunately, this freedom is taken for granted; academicians as well as the general population give relatively little thought to it. Robert Gordis of Jewish Theological Seminary compared the situation to that of an otherwise well-read elderly person who, upon seeing for the first time a performance of Hamlet, commented, “Nothing but a string of old quotations.”

Virtually every American now pays at least lip service to the concept of religious liberty. As an abstract principle it is firmly established and respected in America (and sometimes extended to embrace freedom from religion). As a matter of practice, however, it causes considerable ...

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