The Forgotten First Freedom

The surest way to destroy a country is to destroy its liberty . . . from the inside. And once inside, the surest way to destroy a country’s liberty is to destroy its memory—its history.

The 2013 annual survey of the “State of the First Amendment,” published by the First Amendment Center, is an indication that the barbarians are inside the gate. The survey reveals that religious liberty [our First Freedom], at best, is the stepchild to freedom of speech.

According to the survey, only 10 percent of respondents said freedom of religion is our most important right, compared to freedom of speech’s 47 percent. At worst, religious liberty is seen as a useless appendix to the Bill of Rights—a constitutional redundancy.

That’s what one First Things reader believes. Commenting on Joseph Knippenberg’s article about the survey, reader Boonton wrote:

Suppose the First [Amendment] left out Freedom of Religion, what would be different? Given freedom of speech and freedom of assembly could the gov’t craft a law prohibiting a religion or set of religious beliefs? I’d say probably not.

And I’d say, why not?

If the government can compel a religious institution to provide services the institution deems immoral and a violation of its conscience—as did the HHS when it mandated the Catholic Church to provide birth control and abortifacients to its employees—then why couldn’t the government pass a law prohibiting the free exercise of religion? Because the Bill of Rights guarantees religious liberty?

Let’s not be so gullible. What happens when our fellow citizens, not only fail to acknowledge the primacy of religious freedom, but also fail to recognize it as one of our constitutional rights?

According to the First Amendment Center survey, 76 percent didn’t even know religious liberty was included in the First Amendment.

And as troubling as that percentage is, the numbers only get worse when compared to those who think the First Amendment goes too far in protecting our rights.

Of 18–30 year olds, 47 percent said it did; as did 44 percent of 31–45 year olds. And 52 percent of African Americans and 50 percent of Hispanics agreed.

The Bill of Rights cannot guarantee what the people will not guard. And the people will not guard what they do not hold in high regard.

“Clearly we have not made a compelling case for the importance of religious freedom,” Knippenberg concluded, “especially among younger people and minorities. This is a problem both in education . . . and in our popular culture.” And we’re paying a heavy price for such a failure.

For centuries it was acknowledged truth that religious liberty was the guarantor for all other rights. It was the genesis of limited government, of freedom of conscience, and of civil society.

This is why the dangers of forgetting or devaluing our first freedom is so grave. Without religious liberty, in both our private and public lives, we destroy the idea of limited government by assigning to the state an authority it’s neither knowledgable of nor equipped to exercise.

As governments become bloated on power and pride, freedom of speech becomes a byword, because freedom of conscience becomes outlawed—just ask those caught up in the dragnet of the language police on any American university campus.

How, then, can we assemble with like minds if we can’t speak our minds?

Once the all-watching eye of big brother is allowed to impose speech codes, what’s to become of civil society—the sphere of public life that mediates between the individual and the state? We’ll be all state, nothing else—one giant homogeneous political machine, working, thinking, speaking, gathering, and worshiping for the good of the collective.

The Borg use to say, “Resistance is futile.” But resist we must.

For when the Founders placed freedom of religion as the first freedom in the Bill of Rights they were only codifying what was accepted truth: that freedom of religion is outside the power and authority of government. The Amendment reads that Congress “shall not,” but in truth Congress, the courts, and Caesar cannot prohibit the peoples’ free exercise of their faith—both in private and in public.

As was true in the early Christian Church, so it’s true today: “The Church belongs to God; therefore, she ought not be assigned to Caesar.”

So, if Caesar seeks to meddle in the private affairs of the Church—in approving or disapproving what the Church can and should teach, who the Church can and should hire, and how the Church can and should conduct its internal affairs—or, if Caesar seeks to meddle in the private and public practices of faith by the faithful, then the Church has a sacred right, responsibility, and duty to resist.

As Most Reverend Charles J. Chaput, Archbishop of Denver, put it in a 2010 speech:

“The Church’s freedom is never leased or bartered from Caesar.” Therefore, to restrict religious liberty by government fiat is “to oppose the will of God.” And if it comes to that then “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29).

Religious liberty is never a threat to good government, only to tyrannical government.

George Whitefield, the great British evangelist, feared, as early as 1763, that his government was becoming tyrannical in its dealings with America. In a letter to New Hampshire friends, Whitefield wrote:

My heart bleeds for America. . . . There is a deep plot laid against both your civil and religious liberties, and they will be lost. Your golden days are at an end. You have nothing but trouble before you.

Whitefield’s words are just as relevant today as when he first penned them, two hundred and fifty years ago. The sun is setting and trouble looms on the horizon.

Unless . . .

I invite you to follow me on Twitter @derrickjeter and sign up for my monthly e-newsletter. And if you liked this article you can find others like it at, where you’ll also find information about my books, including O America! A Manifesto on Liberty.

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