Whenever somebody says, “Why did we need the First Amendment?” it is sign that the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and religion, is working.

Until very recently, religious liberty has worked very well in America.  In fact, the way that religious liberty in America is both guaranteed and practiced in the United States influenced even the way that the Vatican formulates ideas about religious freedom.

For what it’s worth, foundational UN documents borrowed their rhetoric about religious freedom from us too.

Because our First Amendment changed the world, it is worth remembering why it was necessary.

Religious liberty throughout the world is something relatively new that began with the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

No other country in the world had religious liberty when our Constitution was written.  At the time, rulers determined the religion of those who lived under them.  Jews were officially persecuted to a greater or lesser degree just about everywhere.

What about England?  Was there religious freedom in the Mother Country?  Hardly. 

Everybody (I hope) remembers that the Pilgrims came to America in pursuit of religious freedom.  But few people remember that the first really big wave of immigration was Presbyterians who came from Northern Ireland in pursuit of religious freedom as much as in pursuit of prosperity.  

Northern Ireland (Ulster) had been forcibly populated by Scottish Calvinists in 1649 when Oliver Cromwell ruled England. But after Cromwell died, and the King was back on the throne, the Church of England was once again established.

“Established” meant everybody paid taxes to support the king’s church, even if you wanted to go somewhere else on Sunday.  Dissenters (Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists) had to pay the tax. Catholics had it even worse:  they were not allowed to own property or be educated at English universities. Being a priest or harboring a priest was a capital crime.

For a few generations Scottish Calvinists prospered in Ulster– they started mills and shipyards, they were good farmers, and the money rolled in.  But then came a string of bad years and those taxes became a real burden.  Many decided to seek their fortune across the Atlantic.  Two hundred thousand Scotch-Irish Presbyterians came here between 1710 and 1775, comprising between a fifth and a third of the population at the time of the Revolution.

They found the East Coast already well-populated (by the standards of the day!), so they crossed the Blue Ridge and pioneered west and south.

Even if the colony in which they settled had an officially-established church (as most did sooner or later), living in remote areas left them free to practice their religion without interference.  They also developed a hearty dislike of paying taxes (especially on anything they distilled…but that’s another storyJ), and tax collecting was difficult in the mountains.

Before and during the Revolutionary War, the British lamented the influence of what they called the “black regiment,” those Presbyterian pastors who spoke out against  English rule. Fear of having to live under an established church was a powerful motivation to preach about what could be lost if the British won.

The First Amendment was first for a reason: Because Americans wanted to be free to belong to whatever religion they felt was true, they also had to be free to speak about it.  And to write about it.  And to assemble to practice it.  And to tell their government to stay out of it. All the other rights support and protect religious freedom.

Religious belief allows a man to be internally free of government.  If you owe a duty to your Creator, a Creator who decides your eternal destiny, then what you owe that Creator is going to outweigh whatever you may owe a mere human, be he king or bureaucrat.  

James Madison put it more elegantly:  duty to the Creator, he said, is “precedent both in order of time and degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.” (J. Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, in 2 The Writings of James Madison 183, 184-185 (1785)).

Madison had once defended a Baptist preacher who had been arrested because he didn’t have a license to preach.  Madison knew how wrong it was for government to have the power to silence a preacher because it didn’t like the message or the messenger. 

Madison understood the human heart, and the human heart does not change over centuries.   If this world is all you have, and the state can cause you misery, well, you might as well go along with whatever the government wants, and avoid the misery because this world is all you have.

But if you believe in another world, one in which there is no pain or grief, that’s where you want to go.  Getting there is more important than anything else.  You’re willing to endure suffering if you must, in order to get there.  And so people who take their faith seriously will resist an oppressive state for the sake of the next world.    

James Madison knew Baptists would fight a government that tried to prevent them from preaching.  And Presbyterians would fight, and so would every other person of faith, because their duty to their Creator came first.  In the twentieth century, Aleksandr Solzenitsyn understood this, too. People whose duty to their Creator outweighed their obligations to the Soviet Union ultimately helped bring down dictators and bureaucrats.

At the Newseum in downtown Washington, an excerpt of the First Amendment is displayed on a plaque. The portion shown might give the impression that the entire First Amendment is about freedom of the press. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell gave a fine speech about the First Amendment…and talked about nothing but political speech (aka campaign finance).

They both put very fine carts before an even finer horse. 

The right to free speech follows the other part of the 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.…” 

The First Amendment was pretty much taken for granted by previous generations of Americans, and government gave religion and religious organizations wide leeway out of deference to the right of free exercise of religion.  Recently, however, the Obama Administration has claimed the right to decide what constitutes a religious employer.  Will the next step be for the government to decide what constitutes a valid religious belief?