Today I’m not going to delve into the discussion that so many people are obsessed with at the moment. I’m neither qualified nor passionate enough to speak about something that has so affected and divided one of our major cities. However, I do feel compelled to offer up a little history lesson for my family and friends in Podunk America. If we are going to speak to this issue, or any other concerning our rights, at least let us not do it in ignorance.
I begin, not with the First Amendment, but with the Declaration of Independence.
“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,”
Most of us are quite familiar with that first part, but don’t remember any of the rest of the somewhat lengthy document. The Declaration of Independence includes a whole laundry list of complaints against the King of Britain and establishes valid reasons why the United States should be independent and self-governing. And I think that much of the wording testifies to the intellect and experience of our founding fathers. I especially like this statement:
“…all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”
The founding fathers of this country seemed to recognize that many people would oppose them simply because continuing the status quo was so much easier.
Now, on to the Constitution. The Articles of Confederation actually served as our first constitution from 1781-1789. There wasn’t much mention of God or religion in the Articles, except for Article III and then the closing.
“The said States hereby severally enter into a firm league of friendship with each other, for their common defense, the security of their liberties, and their mutual and general welfare, binding themselves to assist each other, against all force offered to, or attacks made upon them, or any of them, on account of religion, sovereignty, trade, or any other pretense whatever.”
“…And Whereas it hath pleased the Great Governor of the World to incline the hearts of the legislatures we respectively represent in Congress, to approve of, and to authorize us to ratify the said Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union.”
Then, finally, after many drafts and much discussion, and some editing and more drafts, we ended up with the Constitution and the amendments or Bill of Rights.
I find Madison’s draft of the first amendment interesting:
''The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or on any pretence, infringed.''
That seems much more specific, at least concerning religion, than what we ended up with:
“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.”
I know that decades of argument have followed that declaration of our rights, but I feel confident, given the history of the founding fathers, that their intent was to prevent the persecution of their constituents. The majority of our founding fathers were Episcopalian, the America version of the Church of England. Many were Presbyterians and Congregationalists; a few represented Quakers and other groups. Most of them knew the consequences of tyranny and persecution. (Interesting note: the majority of our presidents have been Episcopalian and Presbyterian.)
I am not equipped by virtue of education or experience, to debate our First Amendment rights, but I offer the conclusions by which I live my life:
1. My rights do not give me permission to impinge upon the rights of others- even if I do not agree with them, even if I am offended by what they are doing. I may hate what my colleague, neighbor, town council or even my president is doing. I have a right to give my opinion, but there may not be anything I can do about it. My opinion, my vote, even my right to legal recourse may not be enough to change something that bothers me.
2. I cannot have more rights without also giving them to someone else who may have an entirely different agenda. That is why I do NOT want public, vocal prayer in school. If I can pray aloud at a school function, then the devil worshipper sitting next to me will be entitled to the same privilege and I don’t want to listen to him!! I can pray silently anytime I choose, and believe me, that is very, very often.
3. I am free to be me! That should be enough. God admonishes us not to judge others. He has told us over and over to take care of our own sins and our own business. Jesus told us to love our enemies. I am free in the United States to do that without fear!
There is much that is wrong with our country. I’m ashamed of most of what our society has come to accept as “normal”. I am afraid of what our grandchildren will have to confront in the future. But I am still proud and grateful to live in America. I wouldn’t trade it for anywhere else on earth.