“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.” (First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution)
These are some of the words that make me most proud to be an American. Written at the end of the eighteenth century, they enunciate the crucial freedoms that recognize human dignity and provide the space for a diverse populace to live together in a democratic republic.
Recently I’ve been reading John Inazu’s Confident Pluralism and have been impressed again what a singular thing are the five freedoms within the First Amendment. While there has been much legal contention about these freedoms, (and I’m not a constitutional, nor any kind of lawyer, so I won’t go there) I continue to believe that it is critical that every American understand these freedoms, and fight for them, even when they are exercised by those with whom we disagree.
The freedoms are:
- Freedom of religion, which includes the refusal of government to privilege any religion by its support, and the free exercise of any religion, which includes not only freedom to worship but freedom to proclaim one’s faith publicly as a private citizen. This includes all religions and protects equally the conscience of those who adhere to no religion.
- Freedom of speech. This freedom generally allows Americans to say what they think, particular in agreement or disagreement with their government but also on a host of other issues. It means Americans may be critical of duly elected government without fear of arrest or other harm (otherwise, most or all of our late night talk show hosts would be in jail). It does not mean we can give false testimony in court, defame another person’s character without proof, threaten others with bodily harm or incite lawlessness.
- Freedom of the press. Tyrannical governments have always sought to shut down or control the press. A free press allows people to express themselves through publication (even as I am doing right now) without fear of government sanction, even if their expression challenges government actions. As a college student, I watched a couple determined reporters at the Washington Post pursue a story that led to the resignation of a U.S. President to avoid impeachment for high crimes and misdemeanors against the United States. While our press freedoms protect even very biased media reporting, I believe the press undermines its ability to keep government honest when it is itself not fair and impartial.
- Freedom of peaceable assembly. The first amendment protects the right of people to gather and associate for all kinds of reasons with those with whom they wish to assemble. Historically, this has protected women’s colleges, fraternal societies, and much more. It allows groups to define their membership. Some have challenged this when such definitions appear discriminatory. Yet at very least, it seems that to foster robust and diverse associations, these should be able to organize around the qualities that distinguish them, around their distinctive mission and message.
- Freedom of petition. This is the basis on which everything from a letter to a congress person to a peaceful protest march is based. It includes the freedom to circulate petitions to change laws. In 2010, I was part of a petition movement to see tougher human trafficking laws implemented within both my state and the U.S.–laws that treated the trafficked as victims and went after perpetrators more rigorously. It was exciting to see laws changed both in my state and nationally as a result. Freedom of petition doesn’t always mean we get our way, or do so as quickly as we would wish.
If one surveys the nations of the world, you will see instances of countries that deteriorate into anarchy or tyranny. It has happened in highly civilized countries. It can happen here. Under the grace of God, I believe the exercise and protection of these freedoms (and often they are protected by their vigorous exercise) are the best way to avoid “the apocalypse” in our own nation.
It also seems that we must fight for these freedoms, even for those with whom we deeply disagree. As a college student, I found myself in the unusual position of advocating for the recognition by our university of an LGBT group that wished to form a student organization (this was in the 1970’s). Some of my Christian friends disagreed. For me it was a simple question of peaceable assembly and that these students should enjoy the same right as we did. They were students. They equally paid tuition and fees. And they were human beings with dignity.
It seems that we are in a time where we may need to do this quite a bit. We may both need to be outspoken in defense of our deepest convictions, and defend the rights of those who differ deeply with us. This is hard, but I fear that the alternative is downright scary, for it would seem to involve the suppression of the ideas, or even, as it has come to be in some places, the lives of those with whom we deeply differ. American greatness is ultimately not the contest of power and who are the winners and losers but rather the quest to live up to the ideals of our first freedoms and to include all our people in them. It is messy and conflictual, back and forth, but I’ll take that any day to tyranny or anarchy.