December 15, 1791, is an important date in the history of this country. The first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution were officially added on that day, exactly 220 years ago. Collectively, those ten amendments are known as the Bill of Rights.
Even though the Constitution, which was ratified in June 1788, is still hailed as a masterpiece, at the time of its adoption some people thought there was something lacking. Mainly, they believed that the Constitution did not contain adequate guarantees of the essential rights and liberties of individual citizens.
Last week U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer was in Kansas City, and I was able to hear his enjoyable talk at the public library. (Justice Breyer was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1994; I was surprised to learn that he and I were both born on 8/15/38.)
Justice Breyer was here partly to promote his new book Making Our Democracy Work: A Judge’s View (2010). Early in his book he explains how James Madison, who later became President, “pointed out that the Bill of Rights would protect individuals from abuse by a majority” (p. 6). Similarly, he begins the thirteenth chapter with these words:
“The Constitution expressly protects the liberty of individuals through the Bill of Rights.” He used the First Amendment as the first example of how that is so.
I find it rather ironic that some conservative Christians in this country complain about how their religious freedom is being stifled by the government—such as by not being able, for example, to have public displays of the Ten Commandments or Christmas creches.
Christianity is, of course, overwhelmingly the majority religion in this country. But as Madison pointed out, the Bill of Rights, beginning with the First Amendment, was put into place in order to protect the rights of minorities from abuse by the majority.
In the 1780s, Baptists were a minority group in Virginia, and some Baptist ministers were even imprisoned because of their unwillingness to abide by the religious beliefs and practices of the majority. Accordingly, John Leland, a Baptist pastor, put pressure on Madison to push for the adoption of the Bill of Rights.
There is a marker on “Constitution Highway,” five miles east of Orange, VA, commemorating the spot where in 1788, Leland and Madison, often called “the father of the American Constitution,” held a significant discussion which resulted in the ratification of the Constitution by Virginia, partly through the support of the Baptists.
Keeping his part of the bargain, Madison, a member of Congress from Orange, presented the First Amendment to the Constitution, by which religious liberty, free speech, and the freedom of assembly are guaranteed. That is the kind of freedom, and constitutional protection, Leland and other Baptists greatly wanted.
Now the religious minorities in our country are people who believe in Buddhism, Islam, or other non-Christians religions. There is a sizable minority of atheists and non-religious people also. The Bill of Rights is important for protecting the religious freedom of those minorities.
As a Baptist, I have been proud of how Baptists in the past were advocates of religious freedom and were strong supporters of the Bill of Rights, especially the First Amendment. I think it is shameful how now that they are in the majority, some Baptists and other conservative Christians complain about the guarding of religious liberty for minority groups in American society today.