The First Amendment: Alive and well?

Arguably the most radical and beneficial concepts spawned by the American Revolution are enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In fact, it is often argued, I believe accurately, that James Madison assured John Leland, the most prominent Baptist leader of the early Federal era, that if the Baptists voted for ratification of the Constitution, Madison would guarantee the first Congress under that new government would pass what came to be known as the First Amendment. Without that guarantee, Leland could not have persuaded his fellow Baptists to vote overwhelmingly for ratification. And if the Baptists had not voted in a landslide for ratification, the Constitution might well have failed to be approved.  

Richard Land
(Photo: The Christian Post/Katherine T. Phan)

In spite of being severely persecuted by late colonial and early federal state governments, Baptists had grown during the Revolutionary period to being the decisive “swing” vote for or against ratification.  Leland and Madison had a 3 hour meeting a few miles from Madison’s home and the quid pro quo was agreed upon.  An example of the discrimination by state governments and their established state churches (Anglican in the South, Congregational in New England) is the fact that in the decade prior to 1776, 500 Baptist preachers were imprisoned by colonial Virginia authorities for “disturbing the peace,” a euphemism for preaching without a license from the state authorities to do so.

The Baptists, having been assured the new Constitution would not bring with it an established “national” church similar to the hostile ones they faced in nine of the 13 original states, voted by significant majorities for the ratification cause.

And, under the first Congress, they undertook ratification of the nation’s glorious First Amendment:

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 redress of grievances.

Embedded in these timeless words were concepts that, when lived out in American society, would give the American nation a government “of the people, by the people, for the people” which produced more freedom for a greater majority of the populace than any country yet conceived on the face of the earth.

When our Founding Fathers ratified the First Amendment, albeit somewhat reluctantly,  Americans budding religious pluralism made a unifying national government-established church a virtual impossibility, they embraced an approach new to human society and utterly contrary to the model adopted by 9 of the 13 original states.

In doing so, they were unleashing a model that would “democratize” America beyond most of their wildest dreams, and in some cases nightmares.

And yet, current research indicates that Americans are scandalously unaware of the content of this invaluable American document which has been so instrumental in expanding freedom’s frontiers both within our borders and beyond.

A recent survey by the Freedom Forum Institute found that only six out of a thousand Americans could successfully name all five of the specific freedoms enumerated in the First Amendment (religion, speech, press, assembly, petition).

Only 29% of American could recall freedom of religion, which has frequently been called the “first freedom,” both because it is listed first in chronological order, and it was the freedom which provided the primary impetus for the First Amendment’s creation in the first place. The only freedom more frequently named by Americans was freedom of speech (64%).

Perhaps the most depressing factor to emerge from the Freedom Forum polling survey was that 29% of respondents thought that the First Amendment “goes too far in the rights it guarantees,” compared to only 23% holding that sentiment just one year earlier.     

While it is comforting that 67% of Americans still believe that the First Amendment’s freedom guarantees do not go too far, the 6% growth in that opinion in just one year is disturbing.

And yet, when reminded of the First Amendment’s freedom of religion, these support for it is strong and remarkably uniform among the nation’s main religious groups as well as non-believers.  Eighty-two percent of Americans across the board agreed that the First Amendment protects all religious groups and the results are remarkably similar across religious lines (Catholics, 78%; Protestants, 84%; Jewish, 79%).  Even among those identified as “non-religious,” 84% agreed.

Americans need to respond to the concerns raised by the comparative neglect of the great freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment, lest these freedoms begin to really lose their grip on the American mind and psyche.

When the First Amendment was adopted, its sweeping definition of personal freedoms guaranteed by the Federal government were unprecedented.  It is true that the concept of “soul freedom” and individual freedom of conscience had taken root early in the soil of the American experience.

As early as 1636 the Puritan preacher Roger Williams was banished into the New England wilderness in the dead of winter for having harshly criticized the established church’s pastors, declaring they were not true pastors, their churches were not true churches and the people should not listen to them, attend their churches, or pay their tithes to these false churches.

To add insult to injury, Williams said the colonists did not own the land because they had been granted the land by King Charles I and had not compensated the Native Americans.  Yes, Roger Williams, the so-called champion of church-state separation, was up to his colonial eyeballs in denouncing colonists shameful treatment of Native Americans.

The same Native Americans took Williams in when he escaped into the frigid winter wilderness of colonial New England, enabling him to survive and flourish in what was first called Providence Plantations (now Rhode Island). Williams then proceeded to excoriate the Puritan leaders in two very successful and popular tracts, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution and The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution Made Yet More Bloody.

Among other things, Williams was the eloquent and early champion of individual soul liberty, declaring that for any mere man, even a king, to interfere coercively with another man’s relation to his or her God was “soul rape.”  He further argued that unless a man was willing to take the place before the Great White Throne Judgment of the person he was attempting to coerce in religious matters, then he should refrain from such coercion.

Williams also anticipated Thomas Jefferson by about two full centuries when he wrote that there should be a wall between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the state to protect the garden of the church from being coerced and contaminated by the government and the government’s established church.

Williams also established the first civil government (Providence Plantations) in the Western World in a millennium where a citizen was free to worship as he or she chose on Sunday, or stay home and shuck peas on the front porch without fear of being arrested by the civil authorities.

These ideas were ultra-revolutionary at the time and for some time after as indicated by nine of the original 13 colonies falling the Old World’s established church-state model even after achieving the independence furnished by the American Revolution’s successful break with Great Britain.

Ultimately however, while still a minority viewpoint when added to the Constitution as its First Amendment, it ultimately became a self-fulfilling prophecy furnishing people of all faiths, or no religious faith, freedom’s ideal – “a free church in a free state” – which has produced a unique flourishing of individual religious freedom, which is the envy of the world.

As we become an increasingly diverse nation, both religiously and ethnically, may God grant us the wisdom to embrace our glorious First Amendment in ways that will benefit and bless all Americans – whatever their faith commitment turns ought to be.

Dr. Richard Land, BA (magna cum laude), Princeton; D.Phil. Oxford; and Th.M., New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, was president of the Southern Baptists’ Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (1988-2013) and has served since 2013 as president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, NC. Dr. Land has been teaching, writing, and speaking on moral and ethical issues for the last half century in addition to pastoring several churches. He is the author of The Divided States of America, Imagine! A God Blessed America, Real Homeland Security, For Faith & Family and Send a Message to Mickey.

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