Why the First Amend­ment is ‘first in im­por­tance’

The Washington Times Daily - - CELEBRATING FREEDOM - By Dr. Owen An­der­son “E pluribus unum.” Owen An­der­son, Ph.D., is an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor in the New Col­lege at Ari­zona State Univer­sity, where he teaches cour­ses in phi­los­o­phy and re­li­gious stud­ies. He has been a fel­low of the James Madi­son Pro­gram at Prin

The First Amend­ment is first, not sim­ply be­cause it falls at the be­gin­ning of a list of amend­ments, but be­cause it ar­tic­u­lates the first free­dom and the na­ture of that free­dom. It guar­an­tees the free­dom es­sen­tial to hu­mans as ra­tio­nal be­ings.

By con­nect­ing the free­dom of re­li­gion with the free­dom of speech, the First Amend­ment gets to the essence of what it is to be a hu­man — for it is self-ev­i­dent that we are think­ing be­ings. We use rea­son to form thoughts, and we think in or­der to make sense of, or give mean­ing to, our ex­pe­ri­ences in light of our ba­sic be­liefs.

Our most ba­sic be­liefs an­swer the most ba­sic ques­tions that can log­i­cally be asked. These in­clude be­liefs about authority, ex­is­tence and value. Be­cause of how these be­liefs shape the rest of our world­view, and be­cause of their re­la­tion­ship to our search for mean­ing, they are iden­ti­fied as our re­li­gious be­liefs.

To be con­cerned for think­ing, rea­son and mean­ing is to be con­cerned for com­mon ground in hu­man civ­i­liza­tion.

The his­tor­i­cal cir­cum­stances of the First Amend­ment might in­clude the back­ground of the Euro­pean Wars of Re­li­gion and the role of the Church of Eng­land in the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment. How­ever, philo­soph­i­cally, it is about what is needed for hu­mans as ra­tio­nal be­ings to pros­per.

Af­ter the Peace of West­phalia in 1648 ended the re­li­gious wars, an in­creased but still lim­ited free­dom of re­li­gion was en­forced.

To­day, the First Amend­ment pro­tects against co­er­cion in mat­ters of re­li­gious be­lief and prac­tice. This is be­cause co­er­cion is con­trary to the na­ture of be­lief and thought.

Although a per­son can in some mea­sure be co­erced into out­ward con­form­ity, it is im­pos­si­ble to im­pose a change of be­lief through ex­ter­nal laws. At best, it makes a per­son agree un­til the threat of force is re­moved.

In be­liefs about the ba­sic ques­tions, any at­tempt to im­pose agree­ment with­out un­der­stand­ing is con­trary to the na­ture of thought. There is a nat­u­ral lib­erty of thought that is, in the words of the Dec­la­ra­tion, in­alien­able.

This is why only ra­tio­nal be­ings can have free­dom of thought and ac­tion. The free­dom to make choices only comes from think­ing about what is valu­able and mak­ing a judg­ment. This kind of ra­tio­nal free­dom is found when a per­son un­der­stands and acts to achieve some goal. In this sense, the First Amend­ment pro­tects the essence of hu­man na­ture as think­ing be­ings, and any at­tempt to limit this free­dom is an at­tack on hu­man dig­nity.

The free­dom of thought and the search for mean­ing are es­sen­tial to the free­dom of speech. Our re­li­gious be­liefs are about what is real, and what is real is pub­lic. Sim­i­larly, speech is pub­lic as the ex­pres­sion of be­liefs about what is real and valu­able. Any at­tempt to limit speech is also an at­tempt to limit thought.

Our free­dom to think and pur­sue mean­ing in­volves our need to pub­licly de­lib­er­ate about our be­liefs and es­pe­cially in those areas where we re­main di­vided. And this is why the First Amend­ment re­mains the first in im­por­tance.

We con­tinue to be di­vided and have dis­agree­ments about our most ba­sic be­liefs. This Amend­ment not only gives us the free­dom to be­lieve and prac­tice our par­tic­u­lar re­li­gions, but also the free­dom to dis­cuss and de­bate over these dif­fer­ences. The more we un­der­stand the role of ba­sic be­liefs in how we in­ter­pret ex­pe­ri­ences, both in­di­vid­u­ally and col­lec­tively, the more we will see why agree­ment is im­por­tant. It is as think­ing be­ings that we can be­gin to in­creas­ingly re­al­ize the goal of

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