Tonight I presented some material on the First Amendment at UBC’s Wednesday night meeting. I concentrated on the historical aspect of the amendment because it helps me make sense of the grouping. I had always wondered why all those topics: religion, speech, press, assembly, were mashed together in one amendment. Shouldn’t they have warranted their own listing if they were so important? I was always under the impression that the first 2 dealt with religion and the others were for the rest of society. Then history taught me a lesson and I’ve been chewing on it for a couple of years. Last year, a few editorials appeared in MO that demonstrated such a poor grasp of the First and its intentions that I wrote the following letter to the editor response. It was published in The Pathway, the Missouri Baptist Convention’s official paper.
If you want to see the questions I used tonight as well as the history notes, just let me know and I’ll post them as well.
First Amendment—“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.”
In response to many of the questions regarding the First Amendment, our understanding of it needs a little work. There is a reason why all of these protections were grouped together under the same amendment, because they were considered related. The “thereof” does not point backwards, it points forwards to the following examples of ways free exercise was not to be denied.
Historically speaking, the prohibition of religion occurred in each of the ways listed in the amendment. Freedom of speech was denied to citizens and preachers who were not a part of the established church. They were arrested and thrown in jail for preaching without a license. Freedom of the press was not just about newspapers and other media. Freedom of the press was denied to citizens who were not allowed to print and distribute religious material that did not conform to the established state church. They were harassed and their printed material was confiscated. Freedom to assemble was denied to citizens who wanted to peaceably assemble in an unauthorized church fellowship. These church gatherings were required to be registered. If they were not registered, they could be broken up by government authorities and the leaders arrested.
Baptists have a history of facing these types of denial of freedom. Roger Williams, who established the first Baptist church in America and Rhode Island, experienced persecution and threats of jail. Isaac Backus led the Warren Association Grievance Committee in Massachusetts opposing tax payer funding for a state church. He also argued in Government and Liberty (1778) that the Revolutionary War was fought for both political and religious freedom. John Leland negotiated with James Madison to include religious freedom protections in the Constitution. Madison himself is reported to have witnessed several Baptists preach from jail while he was a child.
In short, the first amendment was intended to create a climate of freedom in America where religious expression can flourish unhindered by the government and not to squelch, even unpopular ideas in the public square. Modern understanding of Separation of Church & State reverses this and has turned the first amendment from a protection of religious expression to the government taking a hostile position of removal of public religious expression. Baptists, then and today, are opposed to this.
Pursuing Answers to Questions of Faith & Life,