Dr. Richard Samuelson explores how citizens and the government interpret the right to religious liberty

The First Amendment protects U.S. citizens’ right to worship how they choose without interference from the government. However, since the beginning of the Progressive Era, the government has had to balance the competing ideas of freedom and tolerance.

Richard Samuelson, Ph.D., an associate professor at California State University in San Bernardino, addressed these issues and more in the first Koch Foundation lecture on Tuesday afternoon to an audience of about 50 students, faculty and staff.

Each year the Koch lecture series focuses on economic, social and religious liberty. The Koch Fellows Program at APU gives students interested in understanding and promoting religious freedom a chance to learn more about it and participate in special lectures, discussions and internships.

“[The Koch Foundation] at APU aims to help young men and women understand the nation’s identity, its constitutional heritage and the civic values essential for its preservation, and to know the arguments behind the ideas of human equality, ordered liberty, and government by consent. It seeks to support programs that promote human flourishing and liberty,” said Abbylin Sellers, Ph.D., an associate professor of American politics at APU.

In his lecture, Samuelson said that though the law promotes liberty under the First Amendment, it might be more intertwined with the cultural regimes of the time than we imagine.

Most of the time, citizens will accept what is legal as synonymous with what is moral. Though they have the right to express freedom and diversity of belief, they will still use what is permitted in the law as their standard. Other times, people will take a stand against laws they believe to be unjust and change it.

To illustrate his point, Samuelson pointed out that the legal regime was supported by the culture of the pre-Civil War era South until the war made a movement for change. Similarly, Samuelson said, today’s anti-discrimination laws were seen as exceptions until they became the norm. As the government becomes increasingly involved in regulating religious liberty for the sake of tolerance, people have grown accustomed to it.

We’ve lost the general understanding of the freedom to practice religion as we go about our daily business,” Samuelson said. “Religious liberty is the right to practice religion freely. On a basic level, the more that is done by the government, the more likely the laws will intrude upon our liberty to worship God as we want to. Instead of a few laws given by executives, as was intended, we have large swaths of administrators who have the power to give laws at their discretion.”

Samuelson went on, explaining how the government and the way society acts has changed over the years.

“What’s changed is nowadays, instead of having an independent civil society, it’s becoming more and more normal for us to think that the government is supposed to tell us who we can hire and fire and on what terms, who we can serve, and all that,” Samuelson said. “That represents a change in how our government works and what we think that government and laws are for. There’s been a transformation in our understanding of what government is, and what’s normal, and what it means to be free.”

Samuelson’s lecture challenged the audience to think critically about their own belief system and moral code in the context of social regimes and the law.

Lindy Arsenault, a junior international relations major, talked about the significance of the speech.

“I think the topic is very important. I think there’s a need for more discussion on religious liberties in our current society, and what we need to do as citizens to preserve our liberties. I think especially among college students in a faith-based community, it’s good to understand that while the government doesn’t control what we worship, our moral compass can still be influenced by it,” Arsenault said.

Sellers said she hopes this lecture would inspire students not only to think critically about this message, but to let it spur them to action.

“Democracy requires more of its citizens than any other form of government. It depends on the capacity of the citizens to govern themselves. But the habits and dispositions of self-government are difficult to acquire and to sustain. They are rooted in moral and political principles and practices in which each new generation must be educated. That education must sustain civic culture, encourage civic engagement, and promote civic-mindedness,” Sellers said. “We must therefore invest in this generation, for it is up to them, as it has been up to each generation that preceded us and will be up to each generation that succeeds us, to demonstrate their capacity for self-government.”