Myth about the First Amendment

Our Sunday News recently asked me to be a voice to balance the weekly columns of the assistant editor. He generates the most reader response for the paper but writes from more of a left-side, liberal perspective (labels I am a little uncomfortable with).

I’ve written a monthly faith-focused column for many years and recently learned that I generate the second most letters to the editor.

After an increasing number of readers expressed a desire for a more conservative voice to balance the offerings of the assistant editor, the paper contacted me and asked if I would be willing to write twice a month and address political subjects. But they told me that I should feel free to include the faith perspective wherever I wished. Politics and religion?

After accepting the invitation, they moved my columns to the front of the perspective section under the title, “The Right Side” (a title I am not completely comfortable with). Yet my new assignment is not as easy as it might sound. 

The first quite obvious challenge is the fact that religion and politics are two of the most publicly controversial subjects one could address.  Secondly, I am a local pastor and I don’t want people to think that they must hold my political positions to be part of our Church.

Thirdly, although the First Amendment was primarily about protecting religion from government control (i. e. to keep government out of religion), I don’t see it as my responsibility to conform government to my faith.

Over the years, I’ve consistently tried to addressed political issues without using Bible verses as my basis. This is not to say that my faith does not (or should not) inform my worldview and my moral opinions. But I don’t always need explicit references to faith when defending my views.

On a more positive side, my new role could help dispel the widespread myth about the first amendment being written to separate Church and State.

Although the amendment forbids congress from imposing a national religion, it does not require a kind of separation aimed at removing God from all of public life and discourse. Those who demand removal of God and religious reference from public life actually violate the part of the amendment protecting freedom of speech and the press. The founders were interested in protecting freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.

If you don’t think that the public has been badly misled on the purpose of the First Amendment, try stating a moral opinion in a public setting. You’ll likely hear someone ask, “What about separation of Church and State?” “Isn’t that what the First Amendment is all about?” 

The other deeply misleading factor is the notion that one can have politics without moral opinion. You simply cannot engage in lawmaking without moral considerations. In his farewell speech, our first president said, “Of all the dispostitions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports…”

Abraham Lincoln said, “In this country, public sentiment is everything. With it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed. Whoever molds public sentiment goes deeper than he who enacts statutes, or pronounces judicial decisions.” 

If this is true, is it surprising to find those who are hostile against God and religion trying to force both out of public conversation and policy making. Strangely, these same people are unwilling to admit that they are voicing their moral and religious opinions when rejecting others.

Any time (in political discussion) we say one action is right and another wrong, or demand a certain value as a human right, we are using our moral code to influence policy and lawmaking. Let’s stop pretending that it’s only “those Christians” who bring their beliefs with them to the political process. And please correct those who fall for a politicized abuse of the First Amendment .

Hadley Arkes rightly observed that, “There is no way of purging from human beings an understanding of right and wrong, of purging from common life a discourse about right and wrong. Once we think we are in the presence of real wrongs, we think (for example) that it’s wrong for people to torture their infants, our next response is not, ‘Ah, therefore, let’s give them tax incentives to induce them to stop.’ No, we respond with a law that forbids them.”

“Once you understand that this is the nature of the enterprise of ruling and governing, it becomes a matter of whether you will address the questions of right and wrong or whether you simply try to divert the questions and talk about something else.” 

It’s relatively easy to find moral and religious opinion behind most of what is written about policy and law. The moment someone says, “I think it’s wrong….,” he has introduced a moral opinion. When a policy or law forms either based on or in support of that opinion, morality and politics have joined and the people are bound by the outcome. To argue that his opinion does not come from religion is to beg the primary question, “Says whom?”

Let’s not fool ourselves! If a man demands public conformity to his views, he makes himself Lord and uses religious coercion in the political process. The issue is not so much about religion as about seeking public consensus on the good that we the people choose in our policies and laws.

Where does the conversation go from here? 

Steve Cornell


About Wisdomforlife

Just another worker in God's field.
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2 Responses to Myth about the First Amendment

  1. dougindeap says:

    Separation of church and state is a bedrock principle of our Constitution much like the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances. In the Constitution, the founders did not simply say in so many words that there should be separation of powers and checks and balances; rather, they actually separated the powers of government among three branches and established checks and balances. Similarly, they did not merely say there should be separation of church and state; rather, they actually separated them by (1) establishing a secular government on the power of “We the people” (not a deity), (2) saying nothing to connect that government to god(s) or religion, (3) saying nothing to give that government power over matters of god(s) or religion, and (4), indeed, saying nothing substantive about god(s) or religion at all except in a provision precluding any religious test for public office. Given the norms of the day, the founders’ avoidance of any expression in the Constitution suggesting that the government is somehow based on any religious belief was quite a remarkable and plainly intentional choice. They later buttressed this separation of government and religion with the First Amendment, which constrains the government from undertaking to establish religion or prohibit individuals from freely exercising their religions. The basic principle, thus, rests on much more than just the First Amendment.

    It is important to distinguish between the “public square” and “government” and between “individual” and “government” speech about religion. The constitutional principle of separation of church and state does not purge religion from the public square–far from it. Indeed, the First Amendment’s “free exercise” clause assures that each individual is free to exercise and express his or her religious views–publicly as well as privately. The Amendment constrains only the government not to promote or otherwise take steps toward establishment of religion. As government can only act through the individuals comprising its ranks, when those individuals are performing their official duties, they effectively are the government and thus should conduct themselves in accordance with the First Amendment’s constraints on government. When acting in their individual capacities, they are free to exercise their religions as they please. If their right to free exercise of religion extended even to their discharge of their official responsibilities, however, the First Amendment constraints on government establishment of religion would be eviscerated. While figuring out whether someone is speaking for the government in any particular circumstance may sometimes be difficult, making the distinction is critical.

    Nor does the constitutional separation of church and state prevent citizens from making decisions based on principles derived from their religions. Moreover, the religious beliefs of government officials naturally may inform their decisions on policies. The principle, in this context, merely constrains government officials not to make decisions with the predominant purpose or primary effect of advancing religion; in other words, the predominant purpose and primary effect must be nonreligious or secular in nature. A decision coinciding with religious views is not invalid for that reason as long as it has a secular purpose and effect.

    Confusion understandably arises because the constitutional principle is sometimes equated with a widely supported political doctrine that generally calls for political dialogue to be conducted on grounds other than religion. The underlying reasons for that approach are many, but three primary ones are that (1) it facilitates discussion amongst people of all beliefs by predicating discussion on grounds accessible to all and (3) it avoids, in some measure at least, putting our respective religious beliefs directly “in play” in the political arena, so we’re not put in the position of directly disputing or criticizing each other’s religious beliefs in order to address a political issue and (3) since the government cannot make laws or decisions with the predominant purpose or primary effect of advancing religion, it makes little sense to urge the government to do just that. This political doctrine, of course, is not “law” (unlike the constitutional separation of church and state, which is), but rather is a societal norm concerning how we can best conduct political dialogue in a religiously diverse society. Reasonable people can disagree about whether the doctrine is a good idea or not and whether or how it should influence us in particular circumstances.


  2. Intrikasy says:

    It is largely understood that we, as a country, are built on democracy. “Democratic republic,” corrects the teacher. Whatever other labels might be assigned to the morality of the present administration, its roots are in this machine of democracy. We choose, after all! And doesn’t choice define freedom? And isn’t that freedom built on happiness as per the Declaration? And what is happiness but that which is defined as pleasurable by me? So I vote for whoever promises pleasure, which IS the morality of the masses, no?

    Ah, the fallacy of ad populum! True morality is relative–well in a post-modern worldview it is! Yes, as you say, this is a “religious” belief in and of itself.

    Organizations and governments act much the same way as individuals–through self-preservation and power-maneuvering to maintain or improve position. If this holds true, of course fundamental belief systems and morality (“religions”) must be squelched for the sake of maintaining popular control in this “democracy” of sorts–we the people have spoken! And what more efficient way to accomplish this than under a post-modern degradation and reinterpretation of the first amendment mixed with private communications with regard to “separation of Church and State” by a self-preserving governance?

    Jesus did not come to establish his Kingdom via military or governmental control–not yet. Whatever we do and say as salt–in whatever arenas we choose–(building, perhaps, with various combustible or noncombustible materials on the foundation of Christ), we hold to the hope of Jesus’ second coming when we will see what a real government looks like. Meanwhile, do we campaign or do we groan and sigh?

    II Cor. 4 has been a help for me recently with regard to Truth (essentially opposite of “I think, therefore I am”): “I believe, therefore I have spoken.”

    There is no promise of popularity here.


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