The First Amendment to the Constitution was reserved for the position of highest priority of human rights in the minds of the British rebels who had founded the United States of America just thirteen years earlier. They had just settled into something of a routine with the rebuilding of the states and the resumption of commerce. But their perspective was as fresh as the war that won their freedom from King George III.
The First of our Bill of Rights reads, “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.” Four distinct rights are identified here. This article will address the foremost; religion.
For 300 years, the expatriation of Europeans to the new world was driven by discovery, commerce, and religious freedom. When the Colonies opted to “dissolve the political bands” with Great Britain, one of the“causes which impel[ed] them to the separation” was the King’s ancillary titles of Supreme Governor of the Church of England and Defender of the Faith. The freedoms for which the Founding Fathers pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor permeated their perspective, and nowhere more personal than this first named right of all the amendments.
Excerpts from Thomas Jefferson’s prolific writings, below, convey the advanced convictions of religious freedom that today struggles to show itself in a culture that seems to have slipped back into government centralism fit for a king.
“Had not the Roman government permitted free inquiry, Christianity could never have been introduced. Had not free inquiry been indulged at the era of the Reformation, the corruptions of Christianity could not have been purged away. If it be restrained now, the present corruptions will be protected, and new ones encouraged.”
“Galileo was sent to the Inquisition for affirming that the earth was a sphere; the government had declared it to be as flat as a trencher, and Galileo was obliged to abjure his error. This error, however, at length prevailed, the earth became a globe, and Descartes declared it was whirled round its axis by a vortex. The government in which he lived was wise enough to see that this was no question of civil jurisdiction, or we should all have been involved by authority in vortices. In fact, the vortices have been exploded, and the Newtonian principle of gravitation is now more firmly established, on the basis of reason, than it would be were the government to step in, and to make it an article of necessary faith.”
“Reason and experiment have been indulged, and error has fled before them. It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself. Subject opinion to coercion: whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men; men governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons. And why subject it to coercion? To produce uniformity. … Difference of opinion is advantageous to religion.”
“Religion is well supported to preserve peace and order; or if a sect arises, whose tenets should subvert morals, good sense has fair play; and reasons and laughs it out of doors, without suffering the state to be troubled with it.”
Statists have fought the purity of the First Amendment for decades. The ACLU has managed to inculcate a popular belief in American culture and court systems that asserts the oppression that Thomas Jefferson railed against. And amazingly, they have used Jefferson’s words to accomplish their deceitful deed. In a letter of assurance to the Danbury Baptists Association of Connecticut, Jefferson wrote, “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and State.”
Without a Congressional debate, nor vote in the Senate, or ratification of the states, the ACLU has managed to establish “separation between church and state” as constitutional dictum. This, from a letter that Jefferson closed with, “I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common Father and Creator of man, and tender you for yourselves and your religious association, assurances of my high respect and esteem.”
Unfortunately for 21st Century America, the throwbacks of monarchial centralism have successfully argued a reversal of the magnetic poles. This amendment intended for our liberty has instead been boorishly coined as “The Separation Clause.” Governments at all levels are fearful of acknowledging God while feeling obligated to advance the theories of evolution and global warming as articles of necessary faith.
But I am in awe of the concise and deliberate wording, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” No matter the sentiment, whether supportive or restrictive, governments do not have the authority to pass any laws regarding religion - period.
But the United States was not founded on agnosticism. And if the courts were to examine the whole of Jefferson’s writings they would find that it is wholly proper for governments to avow the existence of the God who was acknowledged at the signing of the declaration that begat the nation. “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. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Implied herein is that this Creator (1) is God of the laws of nature, (2) is the creator of humans, (3) intended for humans to share equal status among themselves, and (4) endowed all humans with unalienable rights which include life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Not every god fits this description; Sorry.
Specific theology about God are not to be advanced by governments beyond what is implied in the Declaration. So it is arguable that governments may not fund a nativity scene. But the acknowledgment of the existence and authority of God by government entities is no way in conflict with the First Amendment. Otherwise, the Declaration of Independence, believed by many in 1789 to be the original Bill of Rights, would itself be categorically unconstitutional.
A citizen is incapable of violating the First Amendment. As is evident with every one of the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment was never intended as a restriction on citizen behavior. It is a restriction on government alone. A valedictorian does not violate the First Amendment by proclaiming to her fellow graduates that she believes in Jesus Christ as her savior. But a school district that establishes a rule prohibiting her statement is in direct violation of the First Amendment.
During the period that Thomas Jefferson served as President, the largest church in the United States held their services in the U.S. Capitol building. And the man who wrote the words, “wall of separation between church and State” attended those services every Sunday that he was in Washington. And in that great city, carved in the marble of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial are from a quote that conveys the wisdom that the Founding Fathers attempted to reflect in the beginning words of the Bill of Rights, “…the holy author of our religion, who being lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do, but to extend it by its influence on reason alone.”
On matters of religion, government is to remain reverent and meek as a reflection of the noble manner that the Creator invites His followers while gracing them with free will.
Next week: More on the First Amendment.
This article is the second in a series on the Bill of Rights in the United States Constitution. For the complete set, see http://finance.townhall.com/columnists/markbaisley/