The First Amendment (Recovered)

The hysterical, politically correct outburst following Donald Trump's idea of barring Muslims from abroad produced much emotion and wacky claims, including the protest that barring someone based on his religion is unconstitutional according to the 1st Amendment.

The ignorance here is shocking.  The rights, privileges and obligations of a U.S. citizen are simply inapplicable to non-citizen foreigners.

But this is hardly the first time the 1st Amendment has been misunderstood.  It may be, in fact, the most misunderstood, starting with its first words: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…"

In our time, these words have been used to bar school prayer, prevent football coaches from presiding over collective team prayer, disallow references to God in high school graduation speeches, buttress the demand that "Merry Christmas" be deleted from American speech in exchange for "Happy Holidays," etc.  Today's standard, politically correct interpretation is that the purpose of the 1st Amendment was to make of the new United States an irreligious republic when that was nowhere near its original intent.

The principal, actually innocent catalyst for this misinterpretation lies in the evolution of language over time.  For starters, in 18th-century colonial America, the word "religion" was used not only to distinguish among major world religions, as it is today, but also to distinguish denominations within Christendom and its different sects.  It was common to say that, e.g., a Methodist and a Baptist belonged to different religions.

It is also forgotten that in colonial America, each colony (except for Rhode Island) had an official church in the same way England and every other European country had one.  For example, Pennsylvania was the "Quaker State"; in Massachusetts, the Congregationalists dominated; in Virginia, the Church of England was official (which fact irritated Thomas Jefferson, though C of E himself, for it obligated Christians of other "religions" to pay taxes to a religion – that is, to the colonial education department run by the C of E that paid schoolteachers – that they did not profess).

Thus, there were "established," viz., official religions, and when some revolutionaries wanted to disestablish an official government church, and were opposed, the opponents' philosophy was called antidisestablishmentarianism.

A remnant of this use of the word "establishment" can be found in today's restaurants decorated in the style of an old English pub that advertise themselves as "a dining and drinking establishment."  In our generation, no one refers to a restaurant as an establishment.

Thus, the opening words of the 1st Amendment referred to the new Republic in the making that would have "no establishment of religion" – i.e., no official government department identified with a particular church.

It was not a difficult decision to make, because in the infant United States, there were so many different Christian sects.  For example, at the time in New York City – then as now the country's largest and most cosmopolitan – there were twenty-two different churches (and one synagogue).  And what with all the other ex-colonies transformed into new states likewise home to different faith communities, it was most logical to decide that the new United States of America would have no official church, no official religion to administer religious life in America.  Religion was none of the government's business.

It was also easy for the rebels who made the American Revolution and then drafted the Constitution and its amendments to decide this – men like the first five presidents: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe, in whose writings scholars are hard-pressed to find references to Jesus.  Their preferred terms were God, Supreme Being, Divine Providence, Omnipotent One, etc.  Their War of Independence was fought in the Age of Reason – the name of a book written in 1793 by Jefferson's friend Tom Paine, who rejected Christianity, as Voltaire (d. 1770) and other intellectuals of the day had.  Jefferson himself produced an edited version of the New Testament in which all supernatural events/miracles had been edited out.  Like three others in this list (if not Adams), Jefferson was a post-Christian Deist.  Jesus for Jefferson was a great teacher of ethics but not divine.  The future third president not only objected to forcing a man to pay to support another man's "religion," but he sneered at the one he was raised in, whose colonial, C of E government-paid school teachers were commonly just graduated seminarian bachelors who drank too much.

So the Framers of the Constitution, given the plurality of churches in the new states and the anti-religious temper of the times, decided that their country was to have no established church, no bureaucracy to dictate and manage religious life.  The Framers wanted limited government in many fields, and religion was one of them.

Indeed, when Europeans saw the Stars and Stripes for the first time, they were stunned to see no cross on it, as was common in Christendom.  Muslim powers were also no less amazed, and when in 1799 the U.S. signed a treaty to pay tribute to Tripoli (Libya), it stipulated that certain conditions of the jihad commonly imposed on Christian states were suspended because the U.S. was not officially a Christian country.

Ergo, the language and purpose of the 1st Amendment was to create a republic of not atheists, but free individuals whose religious life was theirs alone to live.

Those who think the first words of the 1st Amendment call for an areligious society are all wet.  The task of the language was just the opposite: to allow for freedom of conscience, freedom of religious expression, and, as the second phrase says, "the free exercise thereof."  These words are as important and determinative as "no establishment of religion."  As the 2nd Amendment denied the new government a monopoly on weapons, so the 1st denied it power over an American's spiritual life.  And if contemporary anti-religionists think otherwise, they have to come up with an explanation for the congressional practice of opening a session with a prayer delivered by different clergymen representing a smorgasbord of churches and today even rabbis in this Judeo-Christian civilization.

Sha'i ben-Tekoa's PHANTOM NATION: Inventing the "Palestinians" as the Obstacle to Peace is available at and