Picture a small crowd gathered around a man standing on the soap box on Hyde Park corner. What else would an American be allowed to say here in the iconic spot known for freedom of speech? He had already set out the reasons in 1789 that the Congress had ratified the First Ammendment in the “Bill of Rights” for citizens of the United States. He had explained that these rights were predicated on the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence that stated that rights come from our Creator and assume first our right to life, second our right to live free and finally to personally pursue what we regard to be in our own best interests – our happiness.
In reverse order the First Ammendment rights guaranteed to an American citizen were:
- the right to assemble peaceably when asking their Government to pay attention to their grievances
- the right of the press to publish whatever it saw fit to say without facing any abridgement eg. censorship from the government
- the right to speak freely again without limit placed by the Congress
- and now finally this speaker was to discuss the primary, foundational and first right among US freedoms: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; …”
On this corner in this special land where so much blood was spilled over religious views 300 and 400 years ago it is as obvious today that citizens need to know their government will not interfere with their choices to pursue their religion. Everyone knows that our attempts to know God, be saved by God and to worship God depend on a variety of scriptures and the interpretations and traditions that sprung from those interpretations. When the kings and Parliaments of Europe felt it was their God given duty to use the power of the state to enforce one of those religious traditions for its citizens war, both civil and international resulted. Terrible crimes were committed in the name of God by those who were given the responsibility of justice by God.
Those who fled the nations of their birth because of some emphasis in the religious tradition of their particular assembly felt it was a matter of life and death whether their new nation would tolerate different religious practices and give no favorite an advantage over another. Religion can generate views and practices as disparate as passivism, divine right of kings, Zionism, communal living, submission to the authority of a bishop or pope, and freedom from slavery. Good people and great minds can disagree on the applications to life of the ideals of love, faith and hope declared in the Christian Scriptures. Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Atheists and Hindus can disagree with Christians over which texts are and are not from God. These disagreements arouse deep passions because they touch on the foundational questions of life: Where are we from? Why are we here? How should we live? The wise in all ages have debated these issues in the public square, places of worship and in their writings. But every time the coercive power of the government has been used to pick winners or losers in these debates both the proponents of a government favored view and their opponents have ended up losers.
The founders of the American Republic understood that these debates were best handled by individuals and assemblies in the freedom of public discourse, not under the coercive restrictions of Law. The determination of how one was to secure or not secure eternal life was best left to an individual, a family, a community – not the elected officials governing the State. Therefore they set out as their first principle: No religion would be established by the government as favored or required for its citizens.
The second principle makes it clear that government has no part in choosing which religious practice a believer can or cannot do. By the way stating a second principle about religion again emphasizes that for our Founders religion was considered the most important right to be guaranteed even before freedom of speech, the press and assembly. All believers were to be allowed their chance to persuade others to follow their religion. No limits were to be placed by Congress on the location or manner of speech that debate could be enjoined. Therefore it would not matter if the believer spoke about their faith in church, a shopping mall, in their place of business, a school or even in the halls of government. No law could be enacted that restricted the free exercise of that religion.
However today critics of American believers often speak of the first amendment right to freedom of religion as if it only gave us the freedom to worship as we choose. Just as the Soviet Union I often visited in the 80’s, only granted the right of freedom of worship to its citizens, secular Americans want to restrict their believing fellow citizens. They expect we will be satisfied to merely express our views amongst ourselves in dedicated, what the Soviets used to call “registered”, places of worship. This way the secular can cordon off faith from society and never have to face a challenge the secularist’s religious beliefs. Soviet law also restricted instruction about religion among adults. Children under 18 were not allowed to learn about God from their parents or teachers. The same practical restriction is made today in the US rules and practice in our public schools. They discourage any mention of the Christian faith outside of courses such as World History and Literature. Yet over half, perhaps 75% of people will choose their view about God by the time they are 18.
Others restrict religious expression by attempting to say it is not lawful to speak about certain topics that might “offend” a minority. In today’s terminology one engages in “hate speech” (now given coercive force to increase punishment handed out by the government on those who commit a crime) whenever a minority hears anything that “offends” them. This is a logical absurdity on several counts.
The ability to restrict anyone, especially the majority, from speaking about what they think or believe was deliberately banned by the First amendment. If one is attempting to persuade a Jewish or Muslim neighbor to change their religion, it might not be wise to quote the Bible passage that says “there is salvation in no one else (this Jesus that was rejected by you), for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” But the right to express that view and discuss it in any forum was not to be restricted by Congress. One who quoted this Christian Scripture and then tried to argue that Jesus is therefore the only true God who brings salvation to those believe in him might expect others of different faiths to disagree. But what that believer should not expect is the press, a teacher, a politician or a judge might say that this statement amounts to hate speech and cannot be expressed outside of a church. This was the tactic used by Soviet atheists to remove religious discourse from the public square. The effect was to restrict the rights of believers – the minority, from telling non-believers – the majority, what they don’t want to hear.
The Constitution insists that people of different sex, race or creed have the same rights for equal protection under the law including freedom of speech and the right to vote. When I, a male, white Protestant citizen of the United States, go to vote or sit on a jury no one can deny me that right based on my race, sex or religion. But if I who believe the New Testament is inspired by God and as it says is useful for “teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” attempt to teach or discuss the implications for how parents should raise children or students relate to their peers in light of another Bible passage, I can be accused of “hate speech” and mocked by proponents of gay rights. The passage says,
“Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. “
Anyone making a fair analysis of this sentence will note that the same horrible fate is expected for drunks, thieves and idolaters as for homosexuals and adulterers.
Today the majority of our society who assumes that our freedoms as citizens include the freedom to have sex with as many partners and of any sex we desire are shocked by words like these. Anyone who would discuss their meaning and application in modern society would be quickly branded a bigot and intolerant. Yet this is the very speech, the very right of freedom of religion, our founders desired to protect. Yes, any group or individual is allowed to criticize in words or print what others say or believe. If someone chooses to use name-calling as an argument to defend their view of sexual morality, they may. Whether the names of bigot or intolerant offend me is of no consequence. It certainly won’t prevent me from exercising my right to speak. But should the government ever make a law that permits a secular unbeliever to deny me, a Christian believer, from stating my opinion and arguing in public? Of course, no! What if I think others should agree with my view that this text from the Bible teaches me to speak out against adultery and homosexuality as prohibited by God? Will I be allowed to freely express that opinion? Will the minority somehow silence the majority with the accusation of intolerance? How can the homosexual minority escape the reversing this accusation that they are the ones who are intolerant of the right Christians, Jews or Muslims have to publicly express their religious view that homosexuality is repugnant to God and a sin in his eyes?
If I state it is morally wrong for the Mafia to kidnap a Ukrainian girl and traffic her as a sex slave, few would argue with me for proclaiming my opinion that it is morally wrong to do this. Yet if I say that it is morally wrong for a man to have sexual relations with another man or that two women should not cohabit and attempt artificial insemination to bear children, why is this “hate speech” that offends a minority. How is saying sex slavery is morally wrong acceptable even though it offends criminals who are involved? In fact making any statement of a moral imperative based on law laid down by God is off limits to public discourse anywhere in our “global community”.
Our religious freedoms are a treasure. They have prevented faith in God from becoming the basis of contention within our nation that has welcomed as citizens people from every country, every race and every religion known to man. Our freedom to hold religious convictions has resulted in many institutions, inventions and societies that care for the needs of those who face misfortune. Most of the principles that our laws are based on derive from the 10 Commandments, The Torah and the New Testament. Denying this makes out the laws we love as a nation into a farce.
When did citizens give up their Constitutional right to freely express their religious views, to pray and teach their children about God in public? Will you exercise your freedom to express your religious views in any place at any time? The Bill of Rights says we can. Will you also allow me the same right?
The Holy Bible : New International Version. 1996 (electronic ed.) (1 Co 6:10). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.