There is a lot of turmoil in the world today. But of this we can be certain, men and women still seek freedom and a system of government that is the most responsive to the people. While there are still dictators and Kings as well as systems of government whereby the few and the powerful reign supreme, the best form of government is still a Republic with Democracy being the goal.
Long ago the United States was most fortunate to form our own Republic with the goal of having a life guaranteed with liberty, equality and an opportunity for each of its citizens to pursue happiness. Although we continue to attempt to form a more perfect union our Constitution and it’s accompanying Bill of Rights is still an excellent road map for other countries and peoples to emulate.
The need to have a government and the need to have a responsive government should be obvious. Tom Paine had it nailed when he said,” Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices.”
In the modern era, the United States faces the challenge of the corrupting influence of money in politics as well as the dangers of a standing army which our forefathers warned us about. Of these issues an attempt will be made in a later essay to deal with the more contemporary problems that our Republic faces. In Part I, a discussion of our Bill of Rights will be made, as its importance can not be denied nor exaggerated. The Bill of Rights state the rights and enshrine them as the peoples rights. The Constitution is the outline and form under which our government is to work but it is the Bill of Rights which gives substance to our freedoms.
THE FIRST AMENDMENT AND NUMBER ONE IN THE BILL OF RIGHTS:
“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 to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
A historical reminder of why the first clause came to pass is instructional for Americans to understand the value and importance of the first clause but it is important for any country which has a theocracy or theocratic tendencies or a country which has a secular government to take note of.
The Protestant Reformation helped to create different sects of Christianity. Often these sects were discriminated against and members of that faith were killed for their different beliefs. The New World colonies offered these religious dissenters an opportunity to freely practice their religious beliefs without governmental interference.
Each colony was chartered, and in these colonies certain religious faiths became dominant and in others different religions were fostered and prospered with a greater tolerance of different faiths. Maryland was primarily Catholic, New England had the Puritans. The Puritan intolerance bred dissenters who populated other colonies such as Rhode Island with Roger Williams and the Ana-Baptists. Pennsylvania had the Quakers. The introduction of Non-English settlers and their different religions created its own pressures as well. In many cases those who had been discriminated against in their home countries became equally as intolerant of other beliefs as the English had been to them back home or how the other home countries had persecuted them for their different faiths Colonists from the Netherlands brought with them their Separatist beliefs as Calvinism was strong among many of the newer colonists. Let us not forget how Massachusetts and Connecticut banished Baptists. Quakers were beaten and imprisoned for their beliefs. Dissenting believers were persecuted for their beliefs.
The Great Enlightenment brought with it religious apathy and a greater sense of the need for being tolerant of others who had different beliefs. One of the social effects of the Enlightenment period was the demand for a free press.
The historical lessons learned by the founding members of our Constitution were not lost upon them when it came to freedom of religion and the need to make it enshrined in our Bill of Rights that Congress shall make no laws as respects the establishment of a state religion. And thereby the wisdom of the clause of guaranteeing the free exercise of religion was wisely included.
James Madison and Thomas Jefferson were quite adamant and insistent on having a wall of separation between church and state. Madison wisely warned his fellow Americans of the danger of having a state established religion by saying that it would not be long after a religion was established when a sect of that religion would claim that they were the ONES with the answers.
Now America is home to every recognized religion in the world, and they all have the right to freely worship as they please.
There are limits when the exercise of a religion endangers the public, for example if a religion was against vaccinations and as a result of that, a disease that could have been preventable was allowed to spread because not everyone was vaccinated. Another example would be if a religion was against a blood transfusion and a child’s life was at stake. It has been deemed by the court that the child’s life comes first.
Freedom of speech is sacred. You can freely criticize your government without worry or fear of retribution. That freedom has its limits as well. You can not yell fire in a crowded theater nor can you plan to overthrow the government. Americans take freedom of speech for granted. We grant freedom of speech even when it creates pain. It has been said that even if you disagree with someone you will defend to the death their right to dissent.
A free press is very important if we are to secure freedom. A free press acts as a watchdog over the potential misdeeds of our government. A free and open press is essential to maintain our liberty.
We also have the right to assemble and sign petitions to seek redress from whatever grievances we feel are being committed against we the people.
The first amendment of our Bill of Rights is a foundation upon which we citizens are guaranteed rights that are sacred to each citizen.
As part of our system of government where we have 3 branches of government, the court system and in particular the United States Supreme Court is there to interpret what may be any violation of our rights under the Bill of Rights and any violation that may have occurred to our Constitution.
What was felt to be a systematic violation of our rights by King George in the days leading up to the Declaration of Independence and our colonial experience up to the days of the writing of the Constitution impacted how people like James Madison felt about our rights as citizens. The enlightenment and the political thought of people like John Locke made a huge impression on our founders and their political thought. The criticisms of what was not included in the Constitution during the days when the debate was ongoing on whether or not to ratify the Constitution influenced James Madison to add our basic rights, the natural rights that are included in the 1st Amendment to the Constitution. These basic and natural rights became our Bill of Rights.