“Like many of you, I would argue that, of all the freedoms that we enjoy today, none is more important—more sacred—than the right to vote”.
This curious statement was made earlier this year at a meeting of the Congressional Black Caucus and the Conference of National Black Churches by Attorney General Eric Holder.
As Americans, we enjoy many freedoms that citizens of other nations do not. It may be possible to rank these freedoms in order of importance, even in order of sacredness, if we choose to do so. Suppose that you took on this challenge, as Mr. Holder did in his speech, and tried to assemble a hierarchy of the freedoms you enjoy. What might you rank as most important? Most sacred? Where would you rank the right to vote?
Without a doubt, voting is a fundamental. And our history includes far too many denials of this right. But, I cannot agree that the right to vote trumps religious freedom in importance, much less in sacredness.
I am not alone in thinking so. One need only glance at the Bill of Rights to see what the Framers thought was the most important right (hint: it is listed first among all the freedoms listed in the First Amendment). James Madison, in his Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, said this:
Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man… It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe… We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man’s right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance.
Our nation’s Founders spoke almost with one voice on the fundamental importance of religious liberty. That they introduced the right to participate in government through voting is no small thing; indeed, it was a great political development that continues to serve us well centuries later. Still, it is clear that, if your vote is to have any real significance in civil society, you must—first and foremost—be free to form your opinions according to your conscience and apart from government coercion.
Of course, this only gets at the political importance of religious liberty, and the fact that it is necessarily more fundamental than the right to vote. But what of its sacredness? Here we must avoid the temptation to make a religion of politics—which is what seems to be taking place when the right to vote is called “sacred”—and remember that the principal purpose of religious liberty is to allow citizens to freely worship and serve God according to the dictates of conscience. Of course, this has political implications in that it should inform how we cast our ballots, but these implications must never be mistaken for the goal. Religious liberty is, of all our constitutional freedoms, the most sacred, because it is the one that aims most directly at freeing us to exercise our duties toward God.
This post originally appeared here.