Hillary Clinton’s promise on this matter has been out there for months, but a virtually unadvertised conference in Washington, D.C. this week has resurrected the Clinton quote from July 2011.

Back in July, at a conference of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Istanbul, Clinton pledged that the US would take action against “religious intolerance” in America.

It’s worth taking a moment to reflect on that. Clinton said, in her remarks, “No country, including my own, has a monopoly on truth or a secret formula for ethnic and religious harmony.” But if any country comes close to having such a monopoly, it is, in fact, the United States. One of the core principles of our founding was religious freedom; the purpose of guaranteeing it was, explicitly, to discourage religious strife; and to fulfill that purpose, the drafters of the Constitution prohibited Congress from making any law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

The US has not avoided religious enmity entirely, but we have kept the law and the government on the side of enforcing a peaceful, quiescent environment for the practice of religion, to a greater extent than any other nation that has ever existed. This environment has existed side by side with robust and sometimes disgusting criticisms of other people’s religions, which we have always allowed as free speech.

And it is worth taking another moment to remember why we determined to allow such free speech. We didn’t do it because it is “good,” in any positive sense, for people to say vile things about each other’s beliefs. It may be perfectly good, or at least not repulsive, for people to say reasonably critical things about religious beliefs. But whether it’s ridiculous allegations about Jews, absurd accusations against Catholics, or today’s fresh-milled 20-something atheists calling Christians “Christofascists,” the point of free speech was never to encourage idiocies of this kind on the theory that we need more of them.

The point of free speech is to keep the government out of the business of deciding whether they’re “bad” or “good.” Government is incompetent to decide such questions, and they should therefore not be within its scope of authority. Precisely because government has civic authority, its involvement in classifying critical speech should be somewhere between severely limited and non-existent. The step from government having an opinion to government repressing intellectual freedom is perilously short. Government can’t wave a magic wand to kindly and gently fix people’s thoughts; it has only the hammer of force and punishment, and that means making every unapproved thought into a “nail.” The American Founders understood this about government, and insisted therefore on keeping its powers limited, constitutionally explicit, and federally divided.

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