America the Blasphemous?

We have been hearing a lot about blasphemy laws of late (see my article Free Speech in Islam to find out about the religious motives behind this push to abridge free speech).

But it may not be well-known that America has some knowledge of anti-blasphemy laws, for at our earliest founding the colonial leaders imposed them.

In the Puritan document "An Abstract of the Laws of New-England, as they are now established. Printed in London in 1641," recorded by John Cotton, a Puritan (a Puritan is a devout and extra-strict Christian), the laws against blasphemy are laid out.

Four rules in this Abstract, in Chapter 7, which pertains to crimes that deserve capital punishment or banishment, are relevant.

The very first rule says: "FIRST, blasphemy, which is cursing God by atheism, or the like, to be punished by death."

Next, rule no. 7 says that members of the church who do not conform to the church's doctrine "shall be cut off by banishment."

Further, a similar rule, no. 8, says, "Whosoever shall revile the religion and worship of God, and the government of the church, as it is now established, shall be cut off by banishment."

Finally, no. 11 says that "[p]rofaning the Lord's day, in a careless and scornful neglect or contempt thereof, to be punished with death."  This rule follows the Old Testament.

Clearly, then, free speech was severely restricted in the early colonies because the Puritan leaders took a literalist interpretation of the Old Testament (Exodus 22:28; Leviticus 24:13-16).

The post-Revolutionary (1775-1783) and the Cconstitutional Founders, living about 140 years after the Puritan colonial laws, knew the basics of the laws in the Old Testament against blasphemy.  At the very least, they had access to the laws against blasphemy in the Puritan colonies.

The Founders decided to go in a different direction.

In 1779, when the Revolutionary War was underway, Thomas Jefferson said that the author (God) of Christianity -- the religion of Jefferson -- spread his message not by coercion, but only by persuasion, with words alone.  Civil punishments of unbelievers or nonconformists would produce only hypocrisy or meanness in them.  Jefferson writes:

Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested His supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint ... All attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burdens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion, who, being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in His almighty power to do, but to extend it by its influence on reason alone.

Next, Jefferson in 1782, shortly after Washington's decisive victory in Yorktown, Virginia, the home state of both men, says that freedom of conscience is a natural right.  No human can confer it, so no human can take it away.  Coercion that takes away his religion -- though repugnant that religion may be to the orthodox -- is always wrong, for coercion may make him worse and not a truer man, nor cure his errors.  Jefferson writes:

The error seems not sufficiently eradicated that the operations of the mind, as well as the acts of the body, are subject to the coercion of the laws. But our rulers can have no authority over such natural rights, only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my legs. If it be said his testimony in a court cannot be relied on, reject it, then, and be the stigma on him. Constraint may make him worse by making him a hypocrite, but it will never make him a truer man. It may fix him obstinately in his errors, but will not cure them.

Thomas Jefferson also said, "But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my legs." Thus, if a man believes that there are twenty gods or no God (Jefferson believed in God), his doctrine does not harm us monetarily or physically.  He has a natural right to his nonconformist beliefs.

John Adams, the second president, writes that the religious liberty and dignity of all humans should be preached from the pulpit.

Let the pulpit resound with the doctrines and sentiments of religious liberty. Let us hear the danger of thraldom to our consciences from ignorance, extreme poverty, and dependence; in short, from civil and political slavery. Let us see delineated before us the true map of man. Let us hear the dignity of his nature, and the noble rank he holds among the works of God-that consenting to slavery is a sacrilegious breach of trust, as offensive in the sight of God as it is derogatory from our own honor or interest or happiness-and that God Almighty has promulgated from heaven liberty, peace, and goodwill to man!

Then the Founders wrote the Constitution.  What does it say about free speech, specifically?  How did they strike a balance between unpopular and even repugnant speech and popular and agreeable speech in religious affairs and disagreements?

The above excerpts from the two Founders represent the spirit of the (brief) First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which reads in its entirety:

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.

This short amendment connects freedom of worship with the freedom of speech.  Everyone must have the freedom to express his opinions, even unpopular ones.  And everyone must worship (or not) as he wants.  No conscience can be coerced.  So the framers of the Constitution disagreed with the early Puritans.  No one should be put to death for blasphemy or verbal insults against religion or the church.  We have progressed beyond the early Puritan stage.

So how did the Founders make the transition from the early Puritan restriction on speech to more freedom?

Many (not all) signers of the Declaration of Independence were devout Christians and ministers, and many of those of like mind who endorsed the Constitution were also devout Christians and ministers.  They worked out a compromise between religious law embodied in the Bible and civil law stemming from reason and common law.  After all, they lived during the height of the Age of Reason or the Age of Enlightenment (c. 1600-1800), so they understood that God endowed humankind with a reasoning mind to figure out the balance between religious law and civil law -- though civil law has the Bible in its background.

The historical context of the first Puritan colonies demonstrates that the communities were small and held to uniform Christian doctrines, so religious law could be imposed.  (But some members of these communities felt suffocated and wanted to leave.)  On the other hand, in the late eighteenth century, the thirteen colonies were large and religiously diverse by comparison.

Christ said in Matthew 17:24, "If anyone comes after [follows] me ..."  The little word "if" implies freedom to accept the way of Jesus or to walk away from it.  He never raised a holy army or a band of assassins to force anyone to convert or to restrict free speech.  Bible-educated Christians understand that Christ fulfilled the Old Testament.

Thus, the Founders accepted the principle not of coercion, but of freedom.  They understood the principle of freedom in the gospel and in reason.  You've got to love our (imperfect) Founders.

Finally, let's go outside the USA.  The West, specifically Europe, has learned its lesson, after persecuting nonconformists and blasphemers (as the politically and religiously powerful defined the terms) for centuries.

Article Nineteen of the 1948 Charter of the United Nations, the Declaration of Human Rights, states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Both the amendment and the article give people true freedom of religious speech or of any kind of speech, even if it involves criticizing a religion or a religious figure.

If followers of a religion are unable to explain or defend it with words alone, then it must not be worth very much.

It may seem culturally insensitive to criticize a religious leader even frivolously, but who decides what is insensitive?  The hypersensitive?

Since it is difficult to discern the matter, we should err on the side of religious free speech.

Always free speech.  No compromise.

James M. Arlandson, Ph.D. has written a book: Women, Class, and Society in Early Christianity. He has recently completed two series, one on The Sword in Early Christianity and Islam and the other on sharia.