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OPINION

‘I Will Defend to the Death Your Right to Say It!’

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
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Francois-Marie Arouet—Voltaire—was certainly no Bible-thumping, book-burning, Jesus freak. Indeed, he was, at best, an agnostic who found religion, especially the Christian religion (as he misunderstood it) to be quite revolting. He is attributed with the famous quote, “I don’t agree with a word you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” It would be nice if the American Left would return to this clarion call for free speech.

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Understanding the Enlightenment, Voltaire, and the historical background of his statement is helpful to comprehending certain current American trends, and the history goes back aways. With the fall of the Roman empire in the mid-first millennium A.D., Europe descended into the “Dark Ages” (medieval historians abhor that term). The “barbarians” had invaded Europe, and any “light” that classical Greece and Rome had brought to the continent was largely extinguished. Whatever one thinks of the Catholic Church, it is only fair to say that that institution did yeoman work in helping Europe rise out of its “barbaric” ashes. We hear about the debauched popes and priests, but rarely do we hear about the vast majority of them who taught the people morality, cared for the sick, fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and slowly led Europe out of savagery towards the Renaissance and future freedom.

But, as with nearly every institution that gets too large, rich, and powerful, the Catholic Church had more than its share of corruption, tyranny, and decadence. Popes and kings vied for power, and as often as not, the popes won and enhanced their authority. “Power corrupts,” as Lord Acton so wistfully announced, and it was the corruption of the Catholic Church that spurred Martin Luther to pen his 95 theses and begin, in 1517, the revolution called the Protestant Reformation.

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By that time, religion, in Europe, had become a matter of state policy. Burning witches and heretics (although not one-thousandth as many as Mao or Stalin killed) wasn’t uncommon. In modern Marxist parlance, these heretics were the “counter-revolutionaries” or “capitalist roaders.” Since they opposed the established order (religion in Europe, socialism in 20th century Leftist utopias), they needed to be dispatched lest they influence others with their non-orthodox words and deeds. It was oppression like this that eventually led to the Enlightenment and Voltaire. The government demanded and enforced right thinking; in Voltaire’s time, that meant correct religious thought. Being a member of the wrong church was costly. By the 18th century, many Europeans had had enough. Free speech and worship were demanded.

The American Founding Fathers were born into this tradition. There were actually two “strains” of the Enlightenment. One, represented by Voltaire, Rousseau, and Diderot, was largely anti-religious. The other, following such thinkers as John Locke and Edmund Burke, argued that true religion was necessary to establish freedom and a moral foundation for society. Voltaire and Rousseau (et al) led to the French Revolution; Locke and his descendants produced the American Revolution.

The Americans, in Enlightenment tradition, argued that religion should not be dictated by the national government and that people should be free to believe and practice whatever religion they chose. But, since religion (in Europe) was state policy and state controlled, governments thus also controlled political speech. It is no coincidence that the First Amendment to the American Constitution has both freedom of speech and freedom of religion clauses. It was religion, in the pre-American Revolution period, that was largely the opponent of free speech. Forced religion destroyed free speech. Freedom of religion therefore meant free political speech.

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But the huge mistake Leftists today make is arguing that the American Founding Fathers were thus anti-religion. This is totally false. To them, true religion was a cardinal foundation of a truly free society. John Adams wrote, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Read that again and let it sink in. The Founders feared government tyranny, whatever its source, so their Constitution was written to limit the power of the national government, giving Congress as few powers as possible (about 17, read Article 1, Section 8). Political power (per the 10th Amendment) was largely placed in the hands of the states and local governments, closer to the people and thus more controllable. The true intent of the “freedom of religion” clause, as Thomas Jefferson wrote, was to prevent the FEDERAL GOVERNMENT from interfering with the religion of the people, as had been happening for the past several centuries. The First Amendment forbids the national government from limiting free political speech and the free practice of religion, and prohibits the establishment of any national political or religious belief. The federal government cannot prevent people from criticizing it or letting their religious beliefs influence their votes or opinions. That would be tyranny. The First Amendment precludes Congress from establishing a tyranny OR a theocracy. Our Constitution establishes a republic, not an autocracy or theocracy. A very, LIMITED republic where government control over people must be restricted in order to avoid political tyranny. But, CRUCIALLY, since government control over people is minimal, the widespread FREE—not forced—exercise of religion is absolutely essential to constrain the baser instincts of the masses. It was a noble experiment in trusting the American people.

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But it has utterly failed now, because the Left does not WANT limited government; they are totalitarian. And that is also why they hate religion so vociferously. A truly religious, moral people don’t need a lot of government. But a constitutional republic, not a theocracy. History shows theocracies can be as totalitarian as Leftist ideologies have become. Both must be guarded against, and the First Amendment, especially, was designed to do just that. It is the Left today that is violating Voltaire’s dictum. They want to impose their theocracy—Marxism—and opponents must shut up or be burned at the stake. No freedom of speech for the “heretics,” the “counter-revolutionaries.”

Isn’t it interesting how history has come full circle in the last 250 years? 

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Have you started your Christmas shopping?  Don’t forget to include some good reading material, especially for the cold winter months.   My western novels, Whitewater and River Bend, are available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Eliva.com.   A third western, Allie’s Dilemma, is available for Kindle only.   And read some different posts on my blog at thailandlewis.blogspot.com.

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