The First Amendment is an amazing bargain! It is a grand symbol of freedom itself as it offers not one, but five freedoms for the price of one. Can you name them? Here they are:
â— Speech. The First Amendment says that people have the right to speak freely without government interference.
â— Press. The press has the right to publish news, information and opinions without government interference. This also means people have the right to publish their own newspapers, newsletters, magazines and so on.
â— Religion. The government is prohibited from establishing a religion and protects each person’s right to practice (or not practice) any faith without government interference.
â— Petition. People have the right to appeal to government in favor of or against policies that affect them or that they feel strongly about. This freedom includes the right to gather signatures in support of a cause and to lobby legislative bodies for or against legislation.
â— Assembly. People have the right to gather in public to march, protest, demonstrate, carry signs and otherwise express their views in a nonviolent way. People can join and associate with groups and organizations without interference.
Think you could live without one or two of them, thinking they’re not really necessary? Think they belong to all or just a few? Which one would you rather do without?
I suspect it would be more honest to say some feel the First Amendment freedoms are meant more for them and those they love rather than rights to be extended without prejudice to every citizen.
Each one is vital and a living reminder why liberty is important. Each one has a story and without them, our country would be the poorer.
But did you realize in a survey of 100,000 high school students a few years ago, one out of three concluded the First Amendment goes too far in the rights it guarantees?
The aforementioned survey also discovered that only half of them believed a newspaper should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories. This is either a matter of gross under-education or it’s a sign of democracy’s coming trouble when those kids grow up.
Let’s be clear: Freedom was the gift of our forbearers, and it must be diligently defended for every citizen.
All five freedoms are important, but the freedom of religion is critical to those of us in the church. We live at a time when diversity and difference have come to put stretch marks on the notion of “people of faith.”
The question seems to be, “Can we practice wholly and completely while also allowing others to do the same in equal measure without censure or limit?”
Or, more directly, can I be the most faithful Christian I want to be while also giving blessing to my Muslim friends to live their Islamic faith just as faithfully?
Can I likewise give a blessing to my Jewish neighbors, or Mormons, or any other religion different from mine?
Baptist historian Bill Leonard spoke recently at the gathering in Fort Worth, Texas, of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. On the topic of religious liberty, he said:
“We do not claim religious rights at the expense of other’s conscience but demand voice, the right to declare our views publicly and privately in ways that take dialogue and differences seriously,” he said. “Disagree vehemently on the basis of conscience; but burn no one, implicitly or explicitly.”
He went on to call upon Baptists to defend and live into their heritage of religious freedom with humility, tempering advocacy for church/state separation with the confession that Baptists benefit from ministerial tax exemptions that represent “the last gasp of fourth century Constantinianism in a democratic culture.”
In a society where individualism is rampant, Leonard said churches “need to take communal responsibility for distinguishing Christian conscience from destructive fanaticism or political meanness.”
At the same time, he said, faith communities must listen for “the prophetic voice of the lone individual, even when it is painful and divisive.”
He concluded his speech with this observation illustrating a genuine First Amendment spirit:
“Finally, amid all the distress, in good conscience let’s consider this. In the year of our Lord 2012, a Republican, former Mormon missionary, and a Democrat, nurtured in an African-American liberationist congregation, are running against each other for president of the United States.”
The bargain of the First Amendment does not mean that it comes cheap. Rather, it’s a value-laden freedom that must be guarded from those too ignorant to cherish it.
May our faith and witness bear the stretch marks of the width and breadth and freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment.
KeithHerron is pastor of Holmeswood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo., and a member of the board of directors for the Baptist Center for Ethics. His sermons appear on EthicsDaily.com. This column first appeared on the Holmeswoodblog.
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).