Our First Liberty
More and more, Americans seem apathetic toward the liberties o'er which our Founding Fathers sacrificed their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor. We seem to hold a low opinion of that which millions of Americans before us not only treasured, but paid the ultimate price to protect. This is especially apparent when we focus on the First Amendment, and particularly the first liberty protected by that amendment.
The text of the 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.
Although there are a number of liberties protected in this amendment -- freedom of speech, freedom of the press, right to assemble, etc. -- the first liberty listed is religious freedom. Concerning that, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion" -- i.e., the government shall not establish a state church.
Remember, it was no less a man than Thomas Jefferson who fleshed this liberty out for us when he, as president of the United States, responded to the Danbury Baptist Association's concern for the protection of religious freedom. Jefferson assured them that he believed that the proper role of government is to refrain from interfering with the religious practices of the citizenry, and to bolster his opinion, he pointed them back to our first liberty:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.
Jefferson understood that man's inalienable right to religious freedom barred government intrusion into religion -- period. And he understood that the First Amendment was in place to guarantee that men remained free to worship as they chose, while government remained fettered and constrained by the laws of nature which forbade it from interfering.
But sitting now in the 21st century, and surveying the relationship between men and their religion, or among men, their government, and their religion, it's easy to see that we have allowed an overreaching bureaucracy in D.C. to tell us not only when and where we can pray, but also how to pray. For example, we can still pray at home whenever we choose, but we can pray only at certain city council meetings, and even then, perhaps, it must be done in a "non-sectarian" fashion (which basically means that we can only utter prayers stripped of meaning by the government).
This same bureaucracy has also decided that pastors aren't free to apply Scripture to the subject of political candidates when they stand behind the pulpit. Via the Johnson Amendment (1954), 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations, including churches, are barred from saying or doing anything to support or oppose a candidate for office.
Ironically, it was in the churches of the colonies that calls for liberty from a tyrannical King George III were clearly set forth, and in the mid-19th century, it was in the churches of America that calls for the abolition of slavery were provided their moral framework. But in the churches of today's America, the Johnson Amendment threatens the very liberties the First Amendment protects.
These things ought not to be.
Our first liberty should be as precious to us as it was to our Founders and to those millions of Americans who paid the ultimate price -- their own lives -- to defend it.
At the Alliance Defense Fund, we are dedicated to preserving and reclaiming religious freedom, and we hope that each of you might be willing to come along beside us and help in this most important of labors.
Alan Sears, a former federal prosecutor who held various posts in the Departments of Justice and Interior during the Reagan administration, is president and CEO of the Alliance Defense Fund (www.telladf.org), a legal alliance employing a unique combination of strategy, training, funding, and litigation to protect and preserve religious liberty and the sanctity of life, marriage, and the family.