Today, December 15, is the 227th anniversary of the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution. The first of these ten began with the following words:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
So simple, that long sentence, but such a breakthrough in world governmental history. As in the adoption of the Constitution in June 1788 (before which there’d been no new country called the United States, see “Happy Birthday, USA,” June 17, 2013; and “America’s birthday is next week,” June 12, 2016), Americans had shown their beautiful contrarian spirit to assume the risks of living in freedom. At the outset, that meant freedom from external domination, correction of which required force of arms, which itself needed an agreement among former colonies to enter into a compact of rebellion. That compact was announced to the world in the Declaration of Independence.
But with that freedom won and a new country established, Americans confronted the need to assure freedom from each other. They feared central government, they feared central religion; that is, they feared loss of freedom to their own creation as much as to forces from abroad. Theirs was a reasonable fear. It was addressed by expanding the Constitution by what came to be called the Bill of Rights, a new portion of the Constitution that does not describe the essentials of governance, but what government cannot do to individuals. Interestingly, these amendments were and still are the only collection of a part of the Constitution to have its own name, albeit an informal one.
All parts of the Bill of Rights are important, of course; all are responses to genuine concerns of Americans at that time. And they continue to live in practice. I think it is likely (I’ve not researched this) all these amendments—ever since Marbury v. Madison established the practice of judicial review—have been referred to by Supreme Court rulings down through the years. (Even relatively uninformed Americans know the phrase, “striking down,” that often denotes a SCOTUS decision enabled originally by Marbury.) Further amendments to the Constitution have occurred, some dealing with rights, some not, but the effect on Americans’ rights through the years have in total have increased freedom, not reduced it.
The first 16 words of the First Amendment—my focus in this post—protect our rights to believe or disbelieve what we choose, to worship or not as we please, to speak our minds as we wish, to gather peacefully in expression of that speech, and never to have our opinions and beliefs about religion have to stand against the weight of larger religions or even of government itself. [This informal rewording is mine, not that of the amendment nor of any Supreme Court interpretation. I contend, though, that its everyday vernacular is reasonable.] Just as in my earlier point that freedom includes freedom from each other, the First Amendment is the source of our crucial and historically vital freedom of religion.
Freedom of religion is hollow, however, without freedom from religion. It therefore must logically be included as a necessary part of the meaning of religious freedom. While that phrase (freedom from) offends many Christians, even they when pressed believe their freedom of religion must be protected from the religious freedom of others. Episcopalians would not consider a society to be religiously free in which Evangelicals define proper dogma and worship. No Christian would consider a society to be religiously free in which Muslims, Jews, or Mormons defined proper dogma and worship.
Despite that logic, an organization like the Freedom from Religion Foundation (I’m a “Life Member”) is frequently castigated for its anti-religion sounding name. However, that name simply exhibits a natural and crucial consequence of the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of religion. As I have mentioned above, as well as explained in detail in earlier posts (“Perverting the meaning of freedom of religion,” Apr. 16, 2014; “Freedom of religion requires freedom from religion,” Oct. 8, 2014) in the absence of freedom from religion, there cannot be freedom of religion.
My commitment is to religious freedom, the kind that passed in 1791, the kind that protects a very personal freedom, but with the proviso that freedom to tell others what to do with respect to religion is not part of the bargain. That is why it is important to guard the gates, so to speak, as religions continually threaten—by snuggling up to weak government officials in support of one religious viewpoint or another—to damage the very freedom the Founders established, one that we all have an ethical obligation to defend.