The notion of rights endowed by a Creator brought us a freedom to guard.
For Americans who don't share Christian beliefs, Easter -- Christianity's holiest day -- may mean little more than a family brunch and childhood memories of colored eggs hidden in all the usual places. To many of us, it's merely another Sunday.
But could it be that Easter holds powerful lessons for believers and unbelievers alike?
The day seems to offer a fitting occasion to reflect on our nation's enormous debt to Christianity. In some respects, these fruits are obvious. For example, our great civil-rights revolution was led by Christian pastors like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, and grew directly from the foundation of Judeo-Christian biblical faith.
Earlier, the antislavery movement itself was wholly Christian in inspiration. It was part of an extraordinary, mid-19-century manifestation of evangelical Christian fervor whose fruits ranged from the enactment of child labor laws to the improvement of housing and schools for the poor.
But America's debt to Christianity and its Jewish roots goes even deeper. Our nation is unique in being founded on an idea, a proposition. At the heart of that vision is the Judeo-Christian God, and his creation of a man as a being of unique standing in a universe characterized by a moral law that man can know through reason.
The Declaration of Independence puts it this way: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
"Endowed by their Creator:" Aren't these words an outdated historical artifact? On the contrary, the idea they express is the linchpin of the American project. In America's founding vision, it is man's creation in God's image that undergirds his dignity and "unalienable" human rights and makes their truth "self-evident."
Two corollaries follow: First, that to be just, government must be by and with the consent of the governed. Second, that human rights are not the creation of the state, but exist prior to it. The state does not grant or confer these rights, and so cannot justly take them away.
Our founders understood that of all human rights, freedom of religion -- freedom of conscience -- is the most important, on which all others depend. That is why they enshrined it in the very first amendment of the Bill of Rights.
On Easter 2012, however, our nation's precious heritage of religious freedom is under threat. Increasingly, we find ourselves in a struggle with a government that seeks to suppress the autonomy of religious organizations and appears willing to violate freedom of conscience in order to expand government control.
The recent Hosanna-Tabor case -- decided by the U.S. Supreme Court in January 2012 -- provides an example. In that case, the Obama administration sought to intrude into the hiring practices of religious institutions in an unprecedented way. The administration's position was so extreme that all nine Supreme Court justices rejected it as illegitimate "government interference with an internal church decision that affects the faith and mission of the church itself."
More recently, through Obamacare mandates, the administration has tried to bend the Catholic Church to Caesar's will on matters of core church doctrine. As evangelical leader Chuck Colson has said, this "isn't about contraceptives or even abortifacients."
It's about whether "government bureaucrats" can "dictate the parameters of church doctrine" and "limit the free exercise of religion by telling us which of our beliefs are entitled to conscience exemptions."
The administration is in the midst of a similar shift in the arena of international human-rights policy. In that context, its officials now speak not of "freedom of religion" but of "freedom of worship." This far narrower notion restricts protected activity to private beliefs and prayer, and excludes public acts such as evangelization and charitable work, which are essential to the religious mission.
Christianity has never been a private, one-hour-on-Sunday affair. Jesus Christ did not simply preach for an hour a week in the temple precincts. He taught, healed and confronted authority in the marketplace, gathering crowds wherever he went. The idea that religion is merely a private activity and that the public square should be scrubbed clean of its influence is an artificial construct advanced by a government hungry to expand its power.
The literary critic Anthony Esolen has described Americans' grasp of our nation's Christian heritage with this apt analogy: "We are like people who live in the shadow of a great and rugged mountain, who never notice how it alters even the light of the day, from the rising to the setting sun."
Christians and non-Christians alike must raise their voices when government moves unjustly to restrict our freedom of religion and conscience. Ultimately, such illegitimate action threatens the foundation of all our freedoms.
Katherine Kersten is a senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment. The views expressed here are her own. She is at email@example.com.