*Based on one’s perspective either the first or the second amendment is the most important part of the Constitution. Either it is more important to have something to protect or something to help you protect it.
I will save that debate for another day and skip ahead to which of the five freedoms included in the first amendment is most important. And why were assembly, petition, press, religion, and speech chosen to be the basis of freedom in our country.
Well simply put if you are trying to break away from an absolute monarchy in which the allegiance to the crown meant allegiance to the king as God’s emissary on earth, those five things would have been essential. Being able to speak against some religious action the king took, among others who are like minded, or being able to print your thoughts to gain a larger audience, and ask the king to change are all the things that would get you killed or put in prison if you were lucky.
But if I am to borrow from George Carlin some of these are a bit redundant. The freedom of speech is important as it is the basis of autonomy. But the freedom of assembly is basically the freedom to speak among others; the freedom of the press is the freedom to have your speech distributed; the freedom of petition is basically the freedom to speak to the government without repercussions. The freedom of religion is also a specific kind of autonomy but it is different in that it may or may not involve others.
Put another way: speech without an audience becomes less important while religion without an audience maintains its power. Thus we are left with speech versus religion.
While I just spent a paragraph arguing for the centrality of speech as the basis of a free society because of the many different forms it takes, I actually believe religion is an even more important freedom because of its history of empowering people and inspiring actions. Religion at its core is a belief system that gets groups of people on the same page and pulling in the same direction. This is not necessarily the case with speech. While it may not be true there is a reason for the thought that “organized religion has been the source of more violence and death than anything else in history.” The kernel of veracity is that throughout the history of Western civilization organized religion has often been the reason people are killing others.
Furthermore religion can inspire speech and all of its derivatives (press, assembly, and petition). Religion makes use of speech in a way that is not reciprocal enhancing the case for religion to be a more basic freedom than speech.
Lastly think back to your elementary Social Studies lessons. Why did the Pilgrims come to the New World – freedom of speech or freedom of religion? Religion. The freedom to worship God in a manner of one’s own choosing has always been at the center of the American experiment, first as colonies then as a country.
For these reasons religion stands out as the most essential freedom contained in the first amendment. Unfortunately many people misunderstand this freedom to exclude non-Christian forms of religion. My only response to people with that perspective is that while the people who wrote the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were certainly predominately Christian it is instructive that they left out any mention of their personal religious beliefs out of the country’s rule book. Basically the felt strongly enough about the freedom of religion that they left that issue open so that other denominations of Christian and even other religions not yet incorporated into the country could come and feel welcome.
Evangelicals point to contemporary Americans, who don’t attend regular church services as much as in years past, and say that their lack of religious participation is itself a proclamation of religious affiliation (atheism). No matter what religion remains a basic facet of American life even if it has changed its form.
And because of that, the free exercise of religion is the most essential freedom we have.
Trevor Brookins is a free lance writer in Rockland County, New York. He is currently working on a book about American culture during the Cold War. His writing has appeared in The Journal News. You can reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @historictrev.