Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Genius of the First Amendment

Freedom is fragile. Throughout history, most people have lived in cultures or under regimes where blood, religion and soil have determined beliefs and behavior with no room for dissent. In the past 500 years, Judeo-Christian and Enlightenment affirmations of full liberty of conscience, private property and personal virtue have brought enormous good to the world.

As the US Constitution was framed and ratified in 1787, our Founders added ten amendments to ensure its passage and explicitly enumerate critical personal rights and political boundaries. Whether it is the right to bear arms, a trial by jury or the freedom to assemble, speak and petition the government, Americans have enjoyed liberty without parallel or precedent for more than 200 years. Sometimes those freedoms chafe our sense of justice as criminals, "take the 5th." Sometimes free speech is interpreted so broadly that millions are offended by blasphemous and immoral images and language. But most Americans - and most who have followed our lead around the world - feel the risks are the price we pay for liberty.

The first and greatest freedom is enshrined in the first sixteen words of the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or restricting the free exercise thereof." This clause, along with the Constitutional declaration that there shall be no religious test for public office, constitutes the greatest experiment in freedom in history. For the first time, differences about the most important matters of the human soul are left to the individual and not determined by the state. No state church. People of all faiths or none can live with their deepest differences without fear. Religious communities are protected and welcomed, but they must compete in a free market of ideas and their future rests on their vitality, not state coercion or subsidies.

Over the years, this freedom has been tested by bigoted and intolerant people. Anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish sentiments permeate much of our history. Atheists and believers passionately present their causes, each claiming to have the best evidence. In the past half-century, secular elites have created a new sport with their anti-Christian screeds, like Bill Maher's failed movie and the constant attempts of the ACLU to eliminate religious expressions from the public square. Most Americans are appalled at intolerance and are willing to live with diversity.

Recent events in Dearborn, Michigan reveal the ugly side of intolerant Islam. They unveil an unprecedented threat to our future liberties. Christians were arrested for engaging in peaceful conversations about religion at an Arab festival. They were not blocking foot traffic, hurling insults, picketing or even accosting pedestrians like the brochure distributors in Las Vegas or New York. They were shouted down, accused of causing trouble and carried away in handcuffs. Amidst Islamic shouts, peaceful US citizens were denied their First Amendment rights.

Militant Islam has no place in its ethos for real liberty. There are progressive/liberal traditions of freedom and tolerance in Islamic history, but these have always been drowned out by voices committed to establishing a universal caliphate. One looks in vain around the globe for any Muslim-dominated country that offers full religious freedom - including the liberty to convert to another faith or leave the traditional community without fear of a fatwa.

I challenge Islamic leaders to affirm the First Amendment without qualification and to assert that complete freedom of conscience is a moral and political good. Without these assurances, tensions will only rise. It is not only Christians who are threatened by the assumptive language and sectarian demands of militants - all lovers of freedom are imperiled by intolerance. Some of my atheist friends feel persecuted by what they perceive to be a Christian-saturated culture. Several Christian friends I know feel persecuted for upholding their beliefs and values. To both groups I say beware of the real threat - a perverted interpretation of a religion with no history of anything approaching democracy.

If progressive Muslims will show courage, they will find allies with all people of conscience. The secular Left must step up and criticize some of the barbaric practices of the extremists and stop living in guilt for the colonial past. The Right must reach out and appeal to all people who affirm their core values. Most of all, Americans of all persuasions need to learn their history and rediscover the powerful principled freedoms bequeathed by our Founders.

There is no freedom without virtue and no virtue without absolute morality rooted in transcendent truth. We must recover these timeless principles or America will find herself in the clutches of religious or secular tyranny.

No comments: