First Freedoms


“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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

The Freedom to Change One’s Mind

Flew and Bary

Antony Flew                                                               Rifqa Bary 


It would seem that the idea that a person should freely be able to change one’s mind is, well, a no-brainer. And yet in two books I am reading at present, a change of mind was occasion for controversy, and in one case, at least the possibility of danger. In Did the Resurrection Happen, David Baggett includes an interview with Antony Flew after he announced that he had shifted from a lifelong atheist stance to one of belief in God, albeit an Aristotelian, deistic God. This set off a firestorm of controversy and criticism in the atheist community against its one-time arch apologist.

The other change of mind concerned the freedom of a teenager living at the time in my home metro area, to turn from Islam to Christianity, necessitating, in her account, flight from her family, long court battles over custody until she came of age and continued estrangement from her family. The young woman is Rifqa Bary and her book is Hiding in the Light.

The difficulty with a change of mind, particularly, concerning religious questions, is that we are often part of families or communities that share these deeply held beliefs. Conscientious parents often believe it their responsibility to impart their beliefs to their children. And because these beliefs concern matters of ultimate, and perhaps eternal importance, for a child, or even spouse to turn from these is a grave concern. It can also be a matter of shame with one’s community. When you have been a key advocate, or long time co-belligerent, a change of mind might seem a betrayal, or at least a craven flip-flop.

Yet this begs the question of what is to be done when one can no longer in clear conscience hold one set of beliefs, and as often follows, another sense of beliefs is more persuasive. Is there something sacred about the conscience that dictates that belief must not be imposed upon it? Are their loyalties higher than to family or a community of belief?

To the family or community of belief, I can understand how it would be hard not to say “no.” And yet, to assume this stance is to elevate the family, or community of belief, or in some cases, the state, to a kind of godhood, requiring one’s ultimate allegiance. As troubling is the violation of conscience involved in enforcing belief against the will of another that can only result in either the destruction of personhood, or the alienation of relationship.

A change of mind is unsettling. It may raise the fear of what will happen to the person who has changed. Perhaps it raises the question of whether we have been wrong. It reminds us  that belief for all of us is living in this place between reason and the unknowns of our lives. Yet the fact that we care so much speaks to our shared belief of both the importance of matters of ultimate concern, and the intrinsic value of the person changing her mind.

Might it be that the pursuit of truth is more important than preserving boundaries of families, communities of belief, or states? Might agreeing to this principle actually serve to forge bonds across our differences? Might agreeing to this save families, not from difference, but heartache?

It is for reasons like these that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes the following statement in Article 18:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

Likewise, the flip side of this idea is that no change of belief should be forced. Actually it seems to me a measure of the integrity of any system of belief that it both renounces any effort to compel belief, or to constrain those who would change their beliefs.

Perhaps on this we could agree. Perhaps.

Bob on Books Top Ten Posts of 2014!

What a difference a year makes! Last December, I had been at this blogging thing only a few months and had a handful of followers and a little under 3300 views on the blog. I’ve had some surprises over the last year. This month, the blog has had more views (over 5,000) than all of last year. A question about growing up in working class Youngstown turned into a series of posts and its own category on the blog and the most viewed post of the year. In fact, due to interest from a couple Youngstown Facebook groups, strictly speaking all ten top posts for the year were in this category. What I decided to do with my top ten list was to post the top Youngstown post, which had over 10,000 views and then the next nine non-Youngstown posts. So here is the countdown!

#10: Dear Son, We’re Sorry to Inform You… This post was a parable. I’ll leave you to discover the point of the parable!


#9: Privileged, Persecuted, or Participating?  In response to an online symposium, I reflect on three possible postures Christians working in higher education might take toward the university world.

#8 Teddy’s RulesBookriot had an article listing these rules. I include these and reflect on the unpretentiousness of Roosevelt, something present day literati might learn from.

#7 So Whose America Is It Anyway? My response to Coke’s Superbowl commercial with a diverse ethnic mosaic of people singing “America the Beautiful” and the firestorm of criticism it elicited.

#6 What’s Missing in the Diversity Discussion? This is the post that led to the “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown” series as I discussed how class is often (not always) overlooked in diversity discussions.

#5 On the Passing of Robin WilliamsMy own reflections on the news that this gifted comedian had taken his life.

#4 Sexual ImperialismA response to highly-rated Gordon College’s possible loss of accreditation because of its statement of sexual ethics.

#3 Freedom of Worship = Freedom of Religion –Not! This post has had an interesting life, attracting little interest at first but eventually becoming one of my “most viewed” posts of the year, despite its awkward title!

#2 Let’s Retire This “Christmas” Song! Just posted a week ago, this post became the second most viewed post of the year. Seems a number of people agreed with my argument that “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is a song about date rape, has nothing to do with Christmas, and should be dropped from play lists.

Recipes of Youngstown

Recipes of Youngstown

#1 Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — FoodThis is the post that received over 10,000 views. Obviously, we Youngstowners love food, and this post is full of memories of quintessential Youngstown foods.

The irony is that, apart from the “Teddy’s Rules” post, none of these were on reading or books!  A post on Higher Education Books just missed the Top Ten and as more people learn about the blog, the reviews are getting more attention. But it is interesting to me that the more “issue-oriented” posts were your favorites. Oddly, those for the most part are the most serendipitous–they just happen!

At any rate, there’s the list. I need to give a few shout-out’s at this point. One is to the admins on “I Used to Live in Youngstown” and “I Grew Up in Youngstown” for letting me post on these pages. I also appreciate the hundreds of people who have commented and added your memories and insights to mine. I also want to thank my son, Ben, and his blog [BTW] Ben Trube, Writer and Tom Grosh who administers the Emerging Scholars Blog for all the people you’ve sent my way!

Most of all, I want to thank all of you who have stopped by, read, commented, and followed. It would be a whole lot less fun without you!

Look for a special New Year’s post where I preview some plans for Bob on Books in 2015!

Freedom of Worship = Freedom of Religion — Not!

Have you noticed lately how the language of “freedom of worship” has cropped up in our political discourse? That sounds like a good thing, something Americans have always stood for. Actually, it represents a shift in our rhetoric from the language of freedom of religion, which is a much broader concept. Why does this matter?

It matters because the concept of ‘freedom of worship’ has to do with simply protecting what one does in religious assemblies and that the state won’t intrude on these or on one’s private practices of religious expression. What it does however is represent a movement toward confining religious protection to religious assemblies and one’s private life. It does not protect the freedom of conscience of religious people (or for that matter those who embrace any philosophical view) in their public life or protect the expression of points of view that are religiously grounded in the public arena.

Progressive evangelical, Jim Wallis, has noted on various occasions, including this interview, that the gospel is personal, but never private. To confine religious expression and practice to houses of worship or one’s private life is essentially to say that in other realms, the state is supreme and that in these realms allegiance to the state, its laws, practices, and ethical standards, transcends one’s religious beliefs. It makes the state, rather than local communities and marketplaces of ideas and commerce, the final arbiter on a whole array of matters. In the past, we have described other societies who do so as tyrannies who violate fundamental human rights.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights  does not similarly confine religious expression and practice to a merely “private” sphere or speak merely of “freedom of worship”. Article 18 states:

  • Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

This declaration argues for freedom of thought, conscience and religion. It recognizes that to ask people to act in ways that violate conscience is a fundamental infringement on human dignity and freedom. It allows people to change their religion or belief without fear of reprisal. And it allows for the public as well as private manifestation of belief not only in teaching and worship, but in practice and observance.


I am not arguing for the establishment or privileging of any religion, least of all my own. Whenever this has occurred it tends to be to the detriment of the religion! Rather, I am contending for the protection of religious conscience, religiously grounded expression of ideas, and religiously informed ethical practice in public life. I would contend that all humans are “religious” in some sense and all have basic worldviews that frame their thinking, expression and ethical practice. Actually, I think the religious versus secular distinction to be false–secularism is also a religious point of view and equally should not be privileged.

What it all comes down to is that language matters. We have enjoyed a rare and wonderful expression of religious freedom and recognition, at least in principle, of the dignity of people, regardless of their beliefs, or other attributes. But such a freedom is not inevitable or inviolable. It can be eroded, redefined, and limited. Those who would use language to do so should be watchful because in this and so many other things, there may be others who use the same tactics even more skillfully. Protecting freedom is messy because it means protecting those we don’t like or agree with, not just ourselves. Yet it seems to me that the alternative is even messier…