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Archive for the ‘1st amendment’ Category

This blog has been lurking around in the corners of my mind for quite a while now, ever since July 1, 2016 when I passed a church bulletin calling for all to come to its celebration of God and America. This sign bothered me for several reasons.  Of course, me being an atheist will probably cause most to figure out some of the reasons it bothered me. But only some. As for the rest, well, the rest I thought would be surprising and I hope interesting.

It bothered me because not only is such a mingling of church and state bad for the state, but it is just as bad for the church.

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Let me first say that this church, and the many others that I saw with a similar message, have every right to do so.  However, not everything that is legal and that people have a right to do is also wise. And in this blog I plan to discuss why it is not wise for a religion, in this case Christianity, to mix religion and nationalism. To do so, I will speak as if I were a much younger me, young enough to still be a Christian.

Let’s start with a question – what is the purpose of the Church?

Answer, to spread the good news of the Gospels, the news about Jesus and his redemptive death and resurrection.  The church was also meant to provide support and teaching to fellow Christians, and to those who come to its doors seeking. And the church was also meant to serve as a moral guide and conscience of people, of societies, of nations, of the world.

While spreading the news of the Gospels might be easier done when part of a government, as part of the inside group, it does so at the expense of corrupting the church, and of causing great pain and suffering to others outside of that church.

A church is not the state.  Nor is it meant to be.  It is not meant to be a supporter of the state, an auxiliary of the state, a co-ruler with the state.

A church is meant to be an outsider in regards to government.

Christianity was born an outsider.

Jesus was born an outsider with Mary being pregnant before being married

Jesus was born into and preached to a people who were outsiders, the Jews.

Jesus served the outsiders among the Jews; tax collectors, the lepers, the unclean, the sinners.

An outsider preaching to a people of outsiders, that is part of what gave Jesus’ message its power.   His message was not to the rich and powerful, although it was theirs for the taking should they choose to listen.  His message was to the poor and powerless.

His message was not how to create a civil society, how to govern a country or state or city.  His message was about God’s love for humanity and how best to receive and spread that love.  It was a message of hope, not political positions.

Jesus, as the outsider, accepted all, but did not change his message, his standards, nor himself for any.

Jesus changed the world.

From its birth to its early years, Christianity was a religion off outsiders looking in.  Often ridiculed, sometimes persecuted, they nonetheless still for the most part, held firm to their standards and beliefs.  And they grew.

And then came the great split. No, not the Catholic and the Protestant split. Nor the disagreements among Christians, which had been present since the beginning as can be seen in the arguments about the nature of Jesus and his relation to God.

No, the great split I am referring to concerns the split from being outsiders to becoming insiders. The conversion of Emperor Constantine transformed Christianity from being a religion of outsiders to being a religion of the insiders, of those with power and money. Or rather, one particular set of Christians became insiders.  As part of the bargain, with Constantine, they had to have a uniform set of beliefs.  So, one set modified some of their beliefs and won, the others became persecuted and died, along with the pagans.

As Paul Johnson wrote in his A History of Christianity:

How could the Christian Church, apparently quite willingly, accommodate this weird megalomaniac in its theocratic system? Was there a conscious bargain? Which side benefited most from this unseemly marriage between Church and State? Or, to put it another way, did the empire surrender to Christianity, or did Christianity prostitute itself to the empire?”

Now, instead of criticizing the government and society, Christianity and the government tyndale-martyrdom-resized-600were one, and actions against the government were also actions against Christianity, and actions against Christianity were also actions against the government.  Given this, how could most Christians criticize any government action, no matter how bad or how flawed?  How could any government allow any deviation from the established religion, no matter how well argued and supported?

They couldn’t

An attack on the religion supported by the state was an attack on the state, and an attack vc006367on the state was an attack on the religion.  Such was the root cause of most of the religious violence and persecution throughout the years; the Inquisition, the forced conversion and persecution of the Jews, Catholics vs. Protestants, Protestants vs. Puritans, Puritans vs. Quakers, and on and on and on.

In addition to the violence against people, was the violence done to beliefs and morals as Churches assumed stately power. Compromises with principles and beliefs were common, as were the flat out ignoring of such principles and beliefs.

This violence against people and against the teachings of Jesus and of God is probably why the first person to propose an absolute and total separation of church and state was a Puritan theologian and the founder of the Baptist Church in America – Roger Williams. And he lived up to that ideal when he founded the state of Rhode Island.

The United States was the first secular government in the world. Something that the writers of the Constitution did intentionally, and with great forethought.

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Their foresight and awareness of history is something lacking today by too many Americans, and is evidenced by so much more than just the signs I saw that inspired this blog.  This lack of forethought and awareness is seen whenever anyone:

  • Claims that the United States is a Christian country. And then advocates for laws to make it so – prayer in the schools, recognition of the Bible as the state book, etc.
  • Work to limit or take away the rights of those who are not the right sort of Christian or believer.
  • Tells Muslims to go home, even those who were born in the United States. And then tries to make it so.
  • Whenever permits are denied to religious groups due to their beliefs.
  • When President H. Bush commented that atheist could not be patriots due to not believing in God.
  • When Trump sends out a White House bulletin in which he states “America is a Nation of believers. As long as we have faith in each other, and trust in God, we will succeed!”

We, as a nation, as a people, have never been very good at remembering. But, today, that

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lack of memory, of awareness, seems stronger than ever.  The evangelical support forTrump shows how far too many Christians and Christian organizations, are willing to go in dealing with the devil in order to gain political power.  And how many of their values and morals, and how much of the teachings of Jesus they are willing to ignore or give up in their quest for political power.

 

I think that they need to go back and read the history of religion, and of what happens when it becomes part of the state.  Some Madison, or Jefferson, or several others would be good.  But, perhaps, it would be best if they rediscovered the writings and thought of Roger Williams.  Before they manage to harm not just people, but the Constitution that will allow such harm to, eventually, be redressed.

 

 

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Finally, a short blog.  At least, shorter than the other two.

First and foremost:

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Next:

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Now, big broad dramatic actions, while nice, are not necessary and are not what is going to turn things around.  It will be the actions of millions of people working on mundane and often boring tasks that will turn things around.  It will be the actions of millions of people donating time and money to organizations that work to protect our rights, our economy, our schools, our environment, our nation that will turn things around.  It will be us, the majority, who will turn things around.

National groups are nice, but look local too.  The Republican conservatives who support Trump control too many states, and that needs to change.

Write letters to your local paper, to your elected representatives at all levels from city to state to national.  This means be aware of what is happening both nationally and locally.  Join in local organizations that are working to improve the environment, poverty, homelessness, civil rights, and all of those things that are most in danger now.   If you are up to it, get involved in local boards on different subjects and problems.  Volunteer to testify on issues that most concern you – locally in city councils to testifying before state committees.

 

For myself, I have never registered as a Democrat or Republican, preferring to be considered an Independent.  And early one there were Republicans who I could and did vote for.  However, those have vanished over the years as the Republican Party became more radically conservative and radically right religious.

So, for the first time in my life, I will become a registered Democrat and work with the local party here in Beaumont.  There are other things I will be doing, and there are a great many groups and organizations that you could become a part of.  Here is just a short and not even remotely exhaustive list of them linked to their websites, in no particular order.

 

Americans United for Separation of Church and State

Common Cause

National Center for Science Education

Texas Freedom Network –  for those living in Texas, this is a group I have worked with before and will become more active in now.

Planned Parenthood

Sierra Club

Friends of the Earth

National Organization for Women

League of Women Voters

American Civil Liberties Union

Southern Poverty Law Center

Center for Responsive Politics

Campaign Zero

Black Lives Matter

 

This is not a complete listing by far.  It barely scratches the surface in fact and doesn’t even cover all the areas of concern.  Look and find something that fits your interests and greatest concerns.

And, perhaps most important of all, remember we are all Americans.  We are all human.  Look at your neighbor, at your town, your city, your county, your parish, your state, and your country, and be aware of whatever threatens your neighbors well being whether it involves civil liberties and equal treatment under the law, the environment in which we all share, education or any of host of other areas that look like they may well be under attack during a Trump Presidency.

Because of this, of our shared humanity and identity as Americans, seriously consider even going beyond if things go badly.  If the Trump administration starts a registry for Muslims, register as Muslims.  If President Trump voids the Dream Act, write and call and protest – demonstrations and marches in solidarity with those who are most affected.  If you are white, go ahead and march in a Black Lives Matter protest.  If you are black, then demonstrate in support of that 18 year old American college student brought here from Mexico when she was 3 but being deported now, if you are an Atheist march with and in support of the American Muslims and the refugees.  Let your voice and presence be heard and seen in as many ways as possible.

Be aware and act.   And vote.  Vote in local elections.  In state elections.  And in National ones.  And, hopefully, we can blunt the damage that I fear is coming.  And in 2016 start to not only blunt but turn it around.

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Republican presidential candidate Gingrich speaks at a meet and greet at the Willow Ridge Golf Course in Fort Dodge,

“We should frankly test every person here who is of a Muslim background and if they believe in sharia they should be deported

…………

“Look, the first step is you have to ask them the questions. The second step is you have to monitor what they’re doing on the internet. The third step is — let me be very clear — you have to monitor the mosques. I mean, if you’re not prepared to monitor the mosques, this whole thing is a joke.” Gingrich on Fox News’ Sean Hannity.

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“Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on,” campaign press release

 

“Do you think we might need to register Muslims in some type of database, or note their religion on their ID?” Yahoo Reporter

“We’re going to have to look at a lot of things very closely. We’re going to have to look at the mosques. We’re going to have to look very, very carefully.” Donald Trump response

……….

“Should there be a database or system that tracks Muslims in this country?”  MSNBC reporter

“There should be a lot of systems. Beyond databases. I mean, we should have a lot of systems.”  Donald Trump response.

 

And with these statements both Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump have stabbed with intent to kill that which both have professed to love and protect – the Constitution

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 “…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States..” Article 6  United States Constitution

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”  First Amendment, United States Constitution

 

An integral part of being an American is being able to live your life in accordance with the dictates of your conscience and religion.

For those Jews so inclined there are rabbinical courts.  For those Catholics so inclined there are diocesan tribunals.   For other religious groups both Christian and not, there are organizations that, for  those so inclined, will resolve marital issues, individual disputes, business disputes, rule on inheritances, and more – all based on the precepts of that religion.

All of this is allowed by the free exercise clause as long  as they meet the following standards:

  • Participation is voluntary on the part of everyone.
  • What is decided does not violate US laws.
  • What is decided does not violate the US Constitution.

This is part of what being free to live in accordance with your conscience and religion means.  It applies not to just a few, not just to some, not just to most, but it applies to all Americans.

But Gingrich, Trump, and too many others wish to deny this Constitutional right to our Muslim citizens.  They would say to these Americans,

“No, you cannot follow your religious laws under the same guidelines as others follow theirs.  In fact, you are not allowed to follow them at all.  And yes, we are instituting a religious test on who is considered a full and good citizen of the United States.

And yes, although we may deny it, in doing so we are destroying that  which we profess to love and swore to protect.

And yes, by doing so we show that our true love is to the United States as a nation first and its ideals only a distant second.  And preferably a nation of Christians with a few Jews tossed in.”

 

Oh, what joy this must give our enemies who have charged us with hypocrisy, to have their once lies now made true.

Oh, what pain it gives seeing too many of our leaders recommending suicide as a way to protect our nation.

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Words. I am amazed at how many people seem to believe that words mean something apart from how we interpret them. Yes, sometimes the interpretation is easy. Most often though, especially with those words whose groupings are considered to be among the most important, they are not.

Power of Words

Two recent claims of a belief in a literal view of words was brought to my attention recently. Or rebrought rather since I was already aware of them. And both dealt with the U.S. Constitution.

The first dealt with the 2nd Amendment and its use of the word “infringe”. As in “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

This person had posted the dictionary definition of infringed in an attempt to show that our Constitution is against any sort of gun control and that all laws regulating the purchase of firearms is an attack on one of our most fundamental rights. Now, I don’t remember exactly which dictionary this person used, but its definition was similar to if not exactly like this one from the Merriam Webster dictionary.

“to wrongly limit or restrict (something, such as another person’s rights)”

Of course, this person was focused on the words “limit or restrict” and interpreted “wrongly” as meaning all attempts to limit or restrict. However, I had a different take on this definition. Mine, and I believe most people’s, interpretation would be that “wrong” described a type of attempt, not that all attempts at limiting or restricting are wrong. In other words instead of any attempt then, wrongly means that some attempts are wrong but also strongly implies that there are also correct ways to limit or restrict.

I also pointed out to this person that they were ignoring the first part of the amendment, “well regulated”. Words when used in sentences or any other larger grouping cannot be understood fully in isolation Those other words can and usually do change or modify their meanings.
In this case, the dictionary definition supports the idea that there are ways to correctly “limit or restrict” this right, and when added to the words “well regulated”, then gun control laws are not unconstitutional. Some can be, others are not. This is recognized even in the recent Supreme Court case, McDonald v Chicago, that recognized an individual right to own a gun.
The other words under dispute was the phrase “separation of church and state”. As is usual for so many extreme conservatives, they like to point out that this phrase is not in the constitution. They then point out that what is in the Constitution instead is “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Words known as the establishment clause.

And they are quite right about this. However, where they go wrong is in claiming that the establishment clause of the Constitution has a plain and literal meaning at odds with that of the phrase separation of church and state. They act as if the establishment clause needs no interpretation. And to add to the fun, they then often then go on to interpret it as meaning to establish a state church and nothing more.

To cap it all off, their interpretation flies in the face of how the word establishment was used during the time of the writing of the Constitution.

It ignores the fact that the man most responsible for writing the establishment clause and getting it passed, James Madison, also used this phrase of Thomas Jefferson to describe the intent of this clause.

They also ignore the history of the ratification of the Constitution and how, although its writers and promoters were justifiably gravely concerned about it being ratified, they did not respond to the many criticisms hurled their way that the Constitution did not contain a reference to Christianity or Jesus or even to just God.

They further ignore the historical fact that even after its ratification attempts were made to correct this supposed deficiency, attempts which were always defeated both during the time immediately after the Constitution and for all the years afterwards – during President Andrew Jackson’s presidency, during President Abraham Lincoln’s presidency and on into the 20th century.

So, in their attempt to say that it does not need to be interpreted, they interpret it in a way at odds with the writer of those words and with history. Seems to me that their view is more the result of their ideology than any sort of reality. Or laziness. After all, it is much easier to look at a word, put your interpretation to it, pretend it is THE literal meaning of the word, and then be happy that it confirms your own biases and prejudices. Look at how much easier that process is than the one I used in the last paragraph above, wherein I had to find out how the word establishment was used in regards to religion at that time, at who wrote those words and how he described the meaning of what he wrote, and at the history of the Constitution.

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Of course, the greatest argument against this idea of a literal reading is the fact that those who claim to believe in such so often disagree on what those words mean when applied to life and when enacted in the world. This is true whether the words in question are those of the Constitution, the Bible, the Qur’an, or any other set of words.

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religion 3“….no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” Article VI, U.S. Constitution
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” First Amendment U.S. Constitution

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“You shall have no other gods before me.” Exodus 20: 3. New International Version (NIV).morality 10 commandments

“You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me,” Exodus 20:5. NIV

“12 If you hear it said about one of the towns the LORD your God is giving you to live in 13 that troublemakers have arisen among you and have led the people of their town astray, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods you have not known), 14 then you must inquire, probe and investigate it thoroughly. And if it is true and it has been proved that this detestable thing has been done among you, 15 you must certainly put to the sword all who live in that town. You must destroy it completely, both its people and its livestock. 16 You are to gather all the plunder of the town into the middle of the public square and completely burn the town and all its plunder as a whole burnt offering to the LORD your God. That town is to remain a ruin forever, never to be rebuilt,” Deuteronomy 12: 13 – 16. NIV.

“10 They assembled at Jerusalem in the third month of the fifteenth year of Asa’s reign. ….12 They entered into a covenant to seek the LORD, the God of their ancestors, with all their heart and soul. 13 All who would not seek the LORD, the God of Israel, were to be put to death, whether small or great, man or woman: 2 Chronicles 15: 10, 12 – 13. NIV
Emperor Constantine I: In 317 he issued an edict to confiscate Donatist church property and sent the Donatist clergy into exile. In 325 he summoned the Council of Nicaea to determine what should be church doctrine.

The Northern Crusades: Crusades carried out by the Christian Kings of Sweden, Denmark, and Poland against their pagan neighbors in the 12th and 13th centuries. an-allegory-of-the-wars-of-religion

The Inquisitions: A group of institutions within the Catholic Church set up to combat heresy and blasphemy starting in 12th century France and lasting into the 19th century. Usually used in conjunction and with the support of the state. For example: King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile established the Spanish Inquisition in 1478.

In England the Act of Supremacy of 1534 made the King or Queen of England “the only supreme head on earth of Church in England”. Due to this, being Catholic made one a traitor and was an act of treason against the state. The Scottish Reformation in 1560 also made it illegal to be a Catholic in Scotland.

The persecution of the Quakers by the Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. In 1656 the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed laws against anyone bringing Quakers into the Colony or anyone harboring them. They would be fined 100 pounds and then either imprisoned or banished. Other fines included 54 pounds for possessing Quaker books or writings, 40 pounds for defending the teachings of Quakers, 44 pounds for a second offence of defending the teachings, followed by imprisonment until the offender could be shipped out. The laws also allowed corporal punishment ie., whippings, cutting off of ears, boring holes in tongues, and hanging.

by Jan LuykenIn the recent past all countries had laws against blasphemy. Usually it was OK to speak out against other religions but not the religion of that country. Many countries, including those in Europe, still have laws against blasphemy on the books, although the last prosecutions using these were usually in the early 20th century. Despite this, some countries have resisted the elimination of laws against blasphemy. As recently as 1998 an attempt was made to rescind Finland’s laws against blasphemy, and failed.

In the United States the authors of the Constitution were heavily criticized for not enshrining God and Christianity into its text. This omission of God and Christianity was denounced by the Reverend John M. Mason who declared it “an omission which no pretext whatever can palliate.” He went on to warn “we will have every reason to tremble lest the Governor of the universe, who will not be treated with indignity by a people more than by individuals, overturn from its foundations the fabric we have been rearing and crush us to atoms in the wreck.” Others warned of the dangers of not putting God and Christianity into the Constitution because it would be an “invitation for Jews and pagans of every kind to come among us.” and that “a Turk, a Jew, a Roman Catholic, and what is worse than all, a Universalist, may be President of the United States.” This was one of the arguments made against ratifying the newly proposed Constitution.

Attempts were periodically made to correct this “mistake”. For example, during the beginning of the Civil War, the National Reform Association was founded in order to correct the mistake that was tearing our nation apart. No, it was not slavery that was the mistake in the eyes of these clergymen but, instead, it was the lack of an acknowledgement of God and Jesus in our Constitution.

In 1863 an attempt was made to amend the Constitution’s preamble and there acknowledge not only God but also Jesus Christ as the source our government. The clergy involved in the National Reform Association devised a statement that would not offend any of the mainstream Protestant denominations (they were not worried of course about Jews, Quakers, or Catholics who, being religious minorities, were aghast at the idea). It proposed replacing “We, the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union…” with “Recognizing almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, and acknowledging the Lord Jesus Christ as the Governor among the nations, his revealed will as the supreme law of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government…”

The National Reform Association met with President Lincoln in February 1864 and presented him with their petition for a Christian government. His response was the observation that “…the work of amending the Constitution should never be done hastily.” and a promise to “take such action upon it as my responsibility to my Maker and our country demands.” He then took no action at all. Neither did Congress, instead tabling the resolution for years until it was forgotten.
The last attempt to insert a Christian amendment into the Constitution was in the early 1960’s. It never made it to Congress for a vote.

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The contrast between the words of the Constitution and the words of the Bible and the example of history are stark and apparent. The Constitution is a secular document creating a secular government, not a Christian one.
“16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28: 16 – 20 NIV”

Given the above task given to Christians by Jesus – the Great Commission – governments have argued that to not promote Jesus and God leads to the eternal damnation of those not aware of Jesus and God’s mercy. To save people from this fate by bringing them to Christ is a basic Christian responsibility and a basic responsibility of a Christian nation. This is one of the major reasons governments promoted one religion and persecuted and condemned others. This is something Christian governments have done from the very beginning. Their not doing this is a thoroughly modern event.

In fact, it is our government, the government of the United States, that started this split between government and religion. It declared that no longer would government be concerned with the state and fate of an individual’s soul. Instead, that would be the province of each individual to deal with as they best saw fit. Instead the government would deal with purely secular matters.

The reason why our founders went against the clear teachings of the Bible and the example of almost 1800 years of Christian governments is due to their clear view of history. During the almost 1800 years of good Christian governments trying to follow the precepts of the 10 Commandments and the Bible religious conflict was pandemic. People within a country were often persecuted, tortured, and killed for being of the wrong faith. Religious differences made warfare between countries even more horrific.

This history made men of conscience such as Roger Williams and, later, our founders, realize that man cannot dictate the conscious of others through the use of government. Roger argued that Man and thus his creation governments, are fallible and can favor the wrong belief, thus causing many more to go to hell than would have otherwise.

Our founders dispensed with this part of the argument and kept to the fact that too much conflict, spilled blood, and evil is done when governments attempt to dictate the conscience of its citizens. Therefore it is best to be left to the individual if the goal is to create a just, long lasting and fair government.

I posted this in light of the recent Public Policy Poll showing that 57% of Republicans favor establishing Christianity as the national religion and only 30% opposed this idea (the relevant question is on page 3). This, as the above shows, displays an astonishing lack of knowledge of both Christian history and of our own Constitution. Or rather, it would be astonishing if I had seen so many displays of such ignorance before.

And that is not even mentioning the fact that so often these same people criticize Islam for wanting to establish Islam as the state religion (although this is not universal in Islam– either today or in history). It seems that whether mixing state and religion is a good idea or not depends on whose religion is about to be bonded to the state.

However, the establishment of state religions – whether they be Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Atheist or whatever – is always a bad idea. It is not religion alone that leads to the greatest conflicts and abuses but rather the mixing of the two that does so.

This is something I expounded on in an earlier blog “What Most Have Forgotten”.

“Although some of our founders were traditional Christians, most, while devout, were not traditionally so. Many believed that religion encouraged morality in the common people and so followed religious practices. All, though, recognized the danger that comes from religion and government becoming entangled. All recognized the necessity for a secular government. All remembered the reasons why a strict separation between church and state is necessary. I think it is time that many of us read more thoroughly our own and European history and take a good look at the world around us.

I think it is time that we start remembering again.”

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Freedom of speech. Almost everyone lauds it as not only necessary for a functioning democracy and a free society, but as a positive good. In the United States this concept is protected in our first amendment.

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 peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

However, some argue that there are limits on free speech. In fact, almost everyone, including me, agrees that there are limits on free speech, just as there are for all of our other rights whether it be freedom of religion or the right to own a gun. The more interesting questions though is what those limits are and who should be the ones enforcing those limits.

What brings this up today for me – and why this is not my next post on myths about the American Constitution – is that this has become a very hot topic with the murder of 11 people in the attack on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo by Muslim terrorists. Should speech that is hateful or strongly offends religious beliefs be limited?

Tribute To Victims Killed During Attack At Satirical Magazine Charlie Hebdo At Place De La Republique In Paris

Now, in the United States there are already many limits on free speech. For example:

– It is illegal to engage in speech that encourages others to commit specific and imminent illegal acts. To use the old (and outdated) analogy of shouting fire in a theater: shouting fire in a theater by itself is not illegal, but shouting fire when there is none that incites an unlawful and deadly or injurious riot would be. Relevant to this is the 1969 Supreme Court decision in Brandenburg v. Ohio that ruled that inflammatory speech, even speech advocating violence, is protected under the first Amendment unless the speech “is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”

– Child pornography and other types that may be deemed obscene.

– Libel and slander.

– Copyright laws are also a limitation on free speech.

– Laws regulating advertising are also a limitation on free speech.

– Statements made by public employees in the performance of their work can also be limited and are not protected by the free speech clause of the First Amendment.

– Patent laws and laws against disclosing military secrets are likewise limitations to free speech.

– Laws limiting when and where public demonstrations can occur.

So, there are already several limitation on free speech in the United States. And that is not even considering the fact that free speech only applies to governmental actions. If you are working for a private business you have no right to free speech while working. Your employer can limit what you can and cannot say. For that matter, parents have the same power over their children.

freedom-of-speech1

Now though many feel that we should be adding one more restriction to free speech, a limitation or law against Hate Speech. The American Bar Association defines Hate Speech as:

Hate speech is speech that offends, threatens, or insults groups, based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or other traits.

Before I explain why I am against hate speech laws let me first declare that I am against all hate speech. I would like it purged from society. Having said that though I must now make a critical distinction – there are different ways of accomplishing this, through government action or through the actions of people acting both alone and in groups.

All of our laws are a balancing act between the protection, preservation, and furtherance of a civil and fair society and the protection, preservation, and furtherance of individual freedom. This balancing act is necessary because a viable democratic society requires both a strong social structure and strong protections of individual liberties. Without both there can also be no stable, viable, democratic society. The catch is that both of these necessary values are also in a state of continual and dynamic tension with the other. In other words, they often clash. And when they do, trying to find the right balance is often not clear and almost always contested.

For myself, legislating hate speech and outlawing it is going too far. Yes, it is easy to point to examples that are clear hate speech; however, laws are not starkly black and white affairs. The world and the people who inhabit and live in that world are always faced with shades of gray – is a certain act murder or self defense or negligent homicide or unavoidable accident for example. How does hate speech get defined and enforced in those gray areas? Who makes the decision in those cases? It would be very easy for those in power or for a majority group to use a power to define what is and is not hate speech within the vast greys of reality to promote their own interests and values; to the detriment of minority groups and views.

For myself, when I look at how governments have tried to use legitimate concerns about society and the protection of our government to create and enforce laws that unnecessarily limit the speech of political opponents and of those who hold minority views, I think that making hate speech illegal would be giving the government too much power. Examples abound, from the Alien and Seditions Act of 1798 to the Smith Act of 1940 to the Communist Control Act of 1954 to our modern debate over Edward Snowden’s illegal leaks of classified materials.

In the case of hate speech, a much better balance is to leave illegal speech connected to imminent violent acts where it currently is, illegal and enforced by the government, and to have hate speech be denounced and protested against by private individuals and groups.

human-shield-300x200For example, having the hateful speech of the Westboro Baptist Church members being met with counter protests or campaigns to raise money for billboards with the message that “God Loves Gays” or having other protesters screening mourners at funerals being picketed by the Westboro Baptist Church with their own bodies and signs of support.

Or this, from the Division for Public Education of the American Bar Association:

Here’s how one community recently approached an incidence of hate speech by calling attention to it rather than attempting to suppress it—by encouraging speech that pointed out how out of place the hate speech was in a community that values the dignity of all.

Matt Hale, a notorious racist, was recently asked to speak at the University of Illinois at Springfield. Hale is the leader of the World of the Creator, a white supremacist group. His presence on campus was controversial. Several students, faculty, and community members thought that the university should cancel his appearance. Instead, he was allowed to speak. Hale’s audience was not impressed. He came across as having a confusing set of beliefs that were out of place in a democratic, multicultural society. Several faculty and students spoke out against his message of hatred.

By allowing Hale to speak, the university recognized free speech rights but also provided a means for community members to respond. Communitarian and libertarian goals were both met.

Yes, hate speech needs to be opposed. However, using governmental laws to accomplish this societal good carry too much risk to individual rights. A risk that in the end could pose a greater risk to a democratic society than allowing hate speech would.  Provided that individuals and groups continue to oppose such speech.

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