Why the First Amendment Is the Best Amendment: Part 5


(Photo: Nick Youngson/Alpha Stock Images)

“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.” — The First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

The struggle against Islamism can be summarized as a struggle over whether or not the First Amendment is a good idea. The First Amendment enshrines freedom of religion and conscience as a matter of law. By contrast, Islamism is about control: over thought and deed.

But to understand how this conflict came about, we have to backup a little bit.

This is the fifth in an eight-part series explaining how and why the First Amendment came about, why it never developed in Islamic countries and why Islamists oppose the principle today.

Part Five: ‘Enlightened’ Absolutism 1648-1789

Starting with Louis XIV of France, kings — no longer encumbered by entanglements with a powerful papacy — concentrated power in their own hands and established strong, centralized states. After Louis’ death in 1715, the royal houses of Europe increasingly attempted to integrate Enlightenment ideas into their own absolutist rule.

Following Louis’ death, monarchs like Frederick II of Prussia, Catherine of Russia and Joseph II of Austro-Hungary saw the duty of a monarch to guide the state by reason and attempted to introduce reforms based on their interpretations of philosophy. From 1648-1776, this notion of enlightened absolutism ruled Europe and was already expanding around the world.

Let us admit the truth: the arts and philosophy extend to only the few,” Frederick II wrote in a letter to the famous French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire, summing up the attitude as, “the vast mass, the common peoples and the bulk of nobility, remain what nature has made them, that is to say savage beasts.”

Thus they perceived that the population was in need of the guiding hand of the all powerful ruler, advised appropriately by philosophers who knew what was best. Reforms involved setting up a central state administration, standardizing tax and criminal codes and restricting the powers of the nobility.

But it also involved governing in the interests of the people, or at least in the interests of the people as conceived of by the ruler.

Education, promotion of science and culture were cornerstones of this idea aimed at improving the minds of the citizenry. Religious toleration, too, was encouraged, but only up to a point.

Frederick William II (also of Prussia), for example, in his 1788 edict on religion, reaffirmed that only Catholicism, Lutheranism and Calvinism would be supported by the state. All proselytism was banned, as was any deviation from the official doctrinal understandings of those sects. This was done, according to the king, in order to preserve religious toleration as well as the purity of the Christian church.

“According to our opinion,” King Frederick William II said, “every Christian ruler has only to see to it that the people are correctly and faithfully instructed in the true Christianity by the teachers and preachers, and thus to give everyone the opportunity to learn and embrace it.” Governments also widely implemented strict censorship, especially of political thought and publications.

There was, as yet, no understanding that toleration might extend beyond specifically mandated sects of Christianity, nor that such toleration might be considered anything approaching a “right.”

Therefore, despite the progress made in science, education, culture and the arts, the ordinary people were still very much at the mercy of the individual monarch who ruled them. If he (and it was normally a he, although there were some outstanding female rulers in this period, in particular Russia’s Catherine the Great and Marie Therese of Austria) decided, he could silence anyone and strip away rights on any pretext.

This had a negative impact both on the citizens as individuals, but also on the development of the broader society. Firstly, every country was at risk from constant pointless wars waged for the personal aggrandizement of the ruler. At the same time internally, censorship and repression meant that innovation was stifled. At least scientists and academics were not censored, unlike the preceding period where the Catholic Church shut down the innovations of Galileo and others.

It was during this period, however, that ideas about universal rights, religious liberty and freedom began to push back. The American revolution of 1776 and the French revolution of 1789 were based on European enlightenment thinkers who held that reason meant the right of the people to have a say in how they were governed and to have representation. These principles were articulated firmly in France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man, voted on by the National Assembly in 1789. That document declared in Article One “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights.”

What that freedom entails, and what rights people are equal in has dominated political debate since.

More radical thinkers went still further, pushing for the abolition of monarchy altogether. “Of more worth is one honest man to society and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived,” American Founding Father Thomas Paine thundered in his revolutionary 1776 pamphlet Common Sense.

It was as a solution to the problems of absolutism and theocracy that the First Amendment was formulated. It correctly places the freedom of the press, the right to petition the government for the redress of grievances and the right to religious freedom together in one amendment. In so doing, it recognizes the connection of those three rights as essentially one right: freedom of conscience. Then it places that amendment first in its list.

By placing it first, the founding fathers of America recognized that if they had any pretensions to establishing a truly free society, in what was then a radical experiment hitherto unheard of in human history, primacy had to be placed on the freedom of the individual.

The best way to achieve this was by enshrining freedom of conscience as the most important principle of their new society.

Looking at the success of America as a country and as a society since the Revolution, not to mention the successive waves of millions of immigrants who came to America to experience a chance at freedom and financial opportunity, one is inclined to conclude that freedom might just be a good idea after all.

In the next part, we will assess how the world of Enlightenment Europe interacted with the Muslim world during the colonial period, and why the Muslim world did not take on the ideas of the First Amendment.

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