Posts Tagged ‘First Amendment’

Taking Liberties: Why Religious Freedom Doesn’t Give You the Right to Tell Other People What to Do

February 9, 2015

UnknownWas America founded as a Christian nation? Robert Boston* equates that view of history with the creationist view of biology – both being equally uncontaminated by facts.

The Constitution never mentions Christ – nor even God. It mentions religion just twice: in the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”) and in Article VI barring any religious test for office. Mighty odd if they were setting up a “Christian nation.”

In fact, as Boston points out in his book Taking Liberties, the founders wrote the First Amendment with no thought of Christians versus non-Christians. Unknown-2Rather, their concern was to protect Christians from each other! The “Christian nation” idea would have made no sense to them in a milieu dominated by conflicts among Christian sects: Roger Williams exiled from Massachusetts for annoying the reigning Puritans; Quakers hanged on Boston Common; Virginia preachers jailed for promoting the wrong kind of Christianity; and, before that, Tyndale burned at the stake for publishing the Bible in English, and Europe’s Thirty Years War with mass slaughter of Christians by Christians. “Enough!” they said. The America they created would be different – in fact, unique in world annals till then. They were not anti-religious but very much anti religious persecution. That’s what the First Amendment was written to prevent.

It’s a supreme irony that while religious zealots view the First Amendment’s separation of church and state as some kind of thumb in their eyes, a crime against religion, in fact it’s the best thing that ever happened for religion in America. It’s often debated why religion remains so strong in America while dying throughout Europe. Some say it’s due to Europe’s cushier welfare state versus U.S. “harshness.” That’s nonsense – those differences are marginal. The bigger difference is that whereas state-backed religion in Europe has stultified and grown irrelevant to people’s lives, America’s constitutional secularism has forced religious sects to compete for congregants by staying relevant.

images-1As Boston says, while people basing their politics on religion invoke what they deem universal truths, not even all Christians agree about such alleged truths – as evidenced, again, by all the Christians massacred throughout history over such disagreements. But such differences of opinion are “kind of the point of America,” Boston writes. We “built a framework that allows us to disagree, yet still live together in peace.”

The book’s key theme is that U.S. fundamentalist Christians exploit claims of religious freedom for what are really efforts to preach to captive audiences (like school kids) and force their religion on others, often by resort to deception and lies. Boston wonders if they’ve actually lost faith in their faith – in their ability to spread their message because it’s such a good message. Certainly fundamentalists have ample means for doing that. But is their message so inherently weak that they must resort to coercive and deceptive means to spread it?

If you want to believe in God, believe you’re going to Heaven and I’m going to Hell, I don’t agree, but I get it. But what I never can get is why people with such beliefs so often have felt a mission to torture and exterminate those believing differently. That’s exactly what ISIS is doing. If you really believe in an omnipotent God, why would he need you to deal with heretics? Why wouldn’t his own arrangements amply and appropriately sort out such problems, with no need for human intermeddling?

Unknown-3Just like most people, I believe my own dogmas are true and right. But the one dogma I hold above all others is the libertarian principle against forcing others to think or act as I would prefer.

* Boston works for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. He also collects ancient coins and has bought them from me for many years.

Corporate Personhood in a Free Society

October 27, 2011

Shannonkringens photostream

“Corporate,” for some, is a four-letter word – with “corporate personhood” a double obscenity. This longtime pet cause of the Left is a particular target of the “Occupy Wall Street” protests.

“Corporate personhood” originated in the Supreme Court’s 1886 decision in Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad. What the Court actually said was that the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of the laws – and that no “person” could be deprived of property without due process of law – applies to corporations. Seems to me entirely reasonable that in a free society under rule of law, these safeguards against arbitrary government power should apply not only to individual people, but to any private organization or institution.

When Mitt Romney recently declared, “corporations are people,” I suspect he meant merely that they’re made up of people. They’re not from Mars. They’re human organizations, not only extensions of the people who own them and run them, but also the people working for them, which indeed is most of the people in the country.

But none of this implies (as critics seem to imagine) that corporations can run roughshod over the rights of real persons. Just as individuals are subject to laws governing their behavior, to protect the rights of others, so are corporations. Not even the most extreme advocate of laissez faire capitalism wants corporations free from laws barring abusive conduct.


Being human organizations, corporations are indeed subject to all the character flaws that individual humans exhibit; and moreover, when you aggregate humans into large bureaucratized institutions, you get a whole new range of pathologies. That does threaten harm, which laws must forestall. This applies even more to another class of bureaucratized human organization: government. Which, remember, has far more power than corporations (a corporation can’t jail you), and hence protecting against government’s abuses is rather more of a concern than protecting us from corporations. And, yes, even corporations have legitimate rights against government abuse.

This brings us directly to a more recent Supreme Court case, Citizens United, which also has the Left hysterical, that corporations are allowed to fund political ads. Almost forgotten is what the case was actually about. Somebody made a political film criticizing Hillary Clinton. The Federal Election Gestapo ruled they couldn’t distribute it because the film had some corporate funding. The Supreme Court said, no, this is still a free country, and the First Amendment’s free speech guarantees bar such government regulation of political advocacy. (Please see my blog post preceding the decision.)

So Citizens United did not open a door that had always been closed. Instead, it overturned a regulatory regime that had been in effect only briefly, and restored the political freedom that had prevailed for most of the prior two centuries. (Note, the whole cat’s cradle of federal election regulation is really geared to suppressing political activity by the “outs” and protecting the “ins,” who never have trouble raising money and getting their message heard.)


But is corruption of the political process, by corporations effectively bribing politicians through campaign contributions, a problem? Yes – a huge one. In fact, as anti-capitalists love to point out, our free market system is greatly compromised by the “crony capitalism” of privileges enjoyed at the behest of (and corruptly bought from) government. In a truly free market, corporations check each other’s power. Government intervention undermines that.

But the remedy for all this should not lie in restrictions upon political advocacy. A far preferable solution would be a system of vouchers or tax credits to subsidize and promote greatly increased citizen political contributions, to counter the impact of corporate money. (This would be a form of public campaign finance vastly superior to existing schemes. For more about it, click here.)

And this we can do without gutting the First Amendment. In a free country, even corporations should have just as much right as any other groups of people to express their viewpoints and advocate for their interests in open public debate. Far more problematic is the idea that government can tell anybody when or how they’re allowed to participate in that debate. That’s the road to (today’s) Damascus.