Thursday, December 15, 2011

Commemorating the Bill of Rights

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.


  1. I agree with your calling out the change of attitude in Baptists. This was timely for me, as I attended my daughter's band concert on Monday night. Schools may no longer label these events Christmas concerts, but the music selected left no doubt what it was.

    I found the music enjoyable, but at the same time wondered if there were parents and students excluded by the music choices. I would have been comfortable hearing music from other religions or backgrounds, but I am sure that would have drawn rebukes from somebody.

    I have no solution, just the comment.

  2. I found your comments about the First Amendment interesting because I am a member of a book group that recently discussed the "Federalist Papers." Part of that discussion included review of Paper 84 in which Hamilton argued that a bill of rights was not needed or desirable. Thankfully, his argument wasn't persuasive, and the first ten amendments were soon added.

    The role that the Baptists played in Virginia in assuring the rights of religious minorities provided a precedence that contributed to the later drafting of the First Amendment which in turn today continues to protect my own rights as a member of a minority Christian group, the Mennonite Church.

  3. Many of my more radical friends think that the Patriot Act undermines the First Amendment in several ways. I have not familiarized myself with their analyses, but I know the problems on the margins — whistle blowers — and the threat of being labelled a terrorist are real. Wikileaks and Bradley Manning deserve a blog, Leroy.

    One of the inherent problems of Freedom of Speech and assembly is that people can advocate for limiting speecha and assembly. As annoyed as I am whenever the neo-Nazis or White Supremacists are given a parade permit or invited to speak on a college campus, and as much as I oppose the ideas of the Tea Party and of Fred Phelps, how can we allow the possibility of "good" movements like the March on Selma or Occupy Wall Street if we outlaw the "bad" ones?

    The Patriot Act gives one pause, that in times of wide-spread panic laws can be passed that we may not be able to overturn later. And if the Climate Change prophets in our times are right, there will be many panics in our future. What if the Fukushima disaster was the work of a terrorist, or if a major spill on the future XL pipeline contaminates the Ogallala Aquifer and a demagogue arouses the farmers and/or the consumers to attack BP? We could see our civil liberties sacrificed for security and protection of elites.

  4. Thanks for your timely post celebrating our Constitution's Bill of Rights. It is no doubt that we have Baptists and their influence to thank for some of these.

    While he was not a Baptist, George Mason also deserves praise for the Bill of Rights. It was he, afterall, who wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776. His document greatly influence the US Constitution's Bill of Rights some 15 years later. Fortunately as a member of Congress his influence was most timely.

    You are quite right that we don't treasure these freedoms today, especially as so many are being attacked by Christians, whose rights are the focus of the document we celebrate today.

    Obviously times change. I sometimes wonder if the founders who ratified the Bill of Rights would have endorsed public, government displays of religion. Thanks, Leroy, for your post giving us plenty to think about. Today I'm thankful for your right to express your beliefs without hinderance by the government.

  5. I, too, appreciate your treament of religious freedom as guaranteed by the first amendment to the Constitution. But, I want to press you just a bit, if I may.

    I would like to hear you justify your embrace of the secular guarantee of plurality in light of your previous posting (2 posts ago?). There you embraced Millbank's assertion that "Christian exclusivism is the only real pluralism because it is the only respecter of difference" (you were quoting Roberts quoting Milbanks, I believe).

    For you to embrace that statement, which you said you did, you may be denying the need for the state's role in protecting religious freedom by advocating a view that asserts radical orthodox Christianity to be sufficient in this regard.

  6. Thanks, Leroy, for the reminder of this history. I, too, share your celebration of religious freedom as well as your disappointment at those conservative Protestants today who would abridge it. (Did I use "abridge" right?)

    I would add, though, that the original 1st Amendment did not actually apply to the individual states themselves, as I'm sure you know. It required the 14th Amendment to guarantee the kind of religious freedom we have today. This is the amendment that made applicable to the states what was applicable to the country as a whole through the constitution.

    I resonate with Dennis Boatright's experience at his daughter's band concert. I had two experiences in the 1980s while I was in touch with public high schools that made me quite uncomfortable. The most egregious was in Liberty. I went to some kind of collective event at the high school. (It might have been a girls' soccer banquet or something. Our daughter played soccer there, or was it that she ran cross country? Well one of those running things.) What bothered me a lot, but which I didn't comment on or try to make a stink about was that the girls' soccer coach was wearing a T-shirt that said, "Jesus Saves." I'm a Christian clergyman, and I found it offensive.

  7. Right on Leroy,

    I agree that we need to respect the rights of others even if it is different from ours.
    I just experienced this Monday when I made a presentation to the City Council in Malibu, California. I am a Volunteer and Southern California representative for the `In GOD We Trust~America` Ministry.
    I was preceded and followed by Atheists who were against displaying our National Motto: In GOD We Trust on the wall in their City Council chambers.
    I showed Love and Not confrontation toward the Atheists who disagreed with my beliefs and at least left a better impression than some Believers would have.
    To me, Patriotism is Love of GOD and Love of Country,but to my adversaries they stated that they did Not feel they had to have a Love of GOD to be Patriotic.
    I still have Faith that this city will display our National Motto, that was Enacted by our 84th Non-Partisan Congress on July 30, 1956; and signed into law by our then President, Dwight Eisenhower.
    Just this past November 1st it was again Reaffirmed by a 396 to 9 vote of our House of Representatives.
    This is Only one person`s opinion.

    Respectfully submitted,
    John T. Carr
    Charitable Giving Foundation

  8. Here's a LINK to a review of a book about some first amendment legal cases. It's probably more than a normal person wants to read, unless they're lawyers.

  9. Comments received in an e-mail yesterday from an esteemed Thinking Friend:

    "Very good, Leroy! Sadly Southern Baptists pose a real threat to those rights guaranteed by the first amendment. Fortunately, however, most other Baptists still are minorities."

  10. Last night I also received comments in an e-mail from a Thinking Friend in Texas. She wrote,

    "You are so right. I've always thought that it is so small-minded to demand religious liberty for ourselves, but be so ready to deny it to someone else who doesn't agree with us. I'm reminded of a friend who declared that he absolutely disagreed with an acquaintance's stand but he would defend to the death that person's right to believe as he did. This country is not a nation with religious freedom if we do not respect the right of the growing numbers of non-Christian individuals to believe what they believe. Will we ever learn that lesson?"

  11. MPH, thanks for your comments [see above], and for your pressing me on the matter of “the secular guarantee of plurality.”

    I don’t see any problem with affirming Milbank’s assertion, which I do (at least to the extent that I understand what he is saying), and with appreciating “the state’s role in protecting religious freedom.” The latter, while based on philosophical/theological beliefs, no doubt, is a primarily a pragmatic policy, but one that is, I think, completely consistent with the kind of pluralism that respects differences as well as one called for by the Christian faith, as I understand it.

    While many Christians, and people of other religious traditions, have in the past lived in places where there was little or no religious freedom, and some even now live in such places, religious freedom for all is, of course, certainly much to be preferred. And when the state makes religious freedom possible, as it has, for the most part, done in the United States for the last 220 years and in Japan, for example, for nearly 65 years now, then I affirm what the state has done in that regard and rejoice that people have such freedom.

    And that is a freedom that I want individuals, and the country as a whole, to recognize, to appreciate, and to work to preserve.

  12. There is something to offend almost everyone in the US Constitution and its Amendments. (In fact many would like to see another amendment to reign in Congress and excessive deficit borrowing - an intentional jab at both over spenders and non-taxers.)
    The states probably do the best when addressing the needs for their populations. Political correctness has probably gone too far pushing a polar backlash which has been brewing. Clean House... and Senate... and the massive Executive branch.

    This coming from one of those people who always scores dead center on political surveys.

  13. Dr. Will Adams, retired political science professor at William Jewell College, sent these substantial comments:

    "You are quite right, of course, about how minority Baptists supported the Bill of Rights and opposed the establishment of religion, but many then seek to impose their faith on others once they feel theirs is a majority faith. History is full of such events.

    "But passing the first Ten Amendments proved to be only a first step. The First Amendment begins, 'Congress shall make no law . . ." (emphasis added to Congress). Thus it did not apply to state or local action, which was more likely than Congress to violate human rights. The rest of the Bill of Rights is in passive voice (such and such a right shall not be violated), lacking a clear definition of who shall not violate them. In the 1830's the U. S. Supreme Court held that the entire Bill of Rights applies only to the federal government.

    The Civil War Amendments, beginning 'No state shall . . .", (13, 14 and 15) are the first to protect individual rights against state (and thereby local) governments. (The original Constitution contained a few restrictions on states.) The 13th Amendment outlaws slavery, the 15th sought to guarantee former slaves the right to vote (unsuccessful for about a century). The 14th proved to be the broadest, forbidding states to deny 'equal protection of the laws' or to deprive anyone of 'life, liberty, or property without due process of law.' Even so, these provisions proved weak at first, as states (not always southern) found evasive practices that complient judges often ratiionalized (as in the 'separate but equal' doctrine which upheld state-sponsored racial segregation. It was only in the 20th Century, especially under the Warren court in the 1950's and 1960's, that the U. S. Supreme Court began to put teeth into the Civil War Amendments.

    "One by one the Court held that one or another of the provisions of the first ten amendments is 'incorporated' into the due process clause of the 14th amendment and therefore applies to the states. Most, but not quite all, of those provisions have been so 'incorporated.' Then in 1954 the Court went to the equal protection clause and held that 'separate schools are inherently unequal' and therefore are unconstitutional. Many of us can remember the prolonged struggle it took to enforce this holding, and of course, there are still some battles to be won.

    "In sum, the struggle for human rights in the U. S. is not one which took place and was won on December 15, 1791. It is a struggle which has been underway throughout American history, and continues to this day."

  14. So many wonderful comments! One of the joys of participating in this blog is to be able to share in such an exchange. Thank you to everyone.

    The one note I would add is that the Constitution was not only born and improved in conflict, it is designed for conflict. While some parts simply define a function, some of the most important define the fault lines along which debate is appropriate. The great example of this is the First Amendment. However, the simple duality of the Second may be a clearer example. It lays out "a well-ordered militia" against a "right to bear arms." Some local governments have run afoul of this amendment by too much emphasizing "well-ordered," while the NRA has found itself in the company of mass murderers for too much emphasis on the "right to bear arms." When we are seeking the space between, we are struggling where the Constitution intended for us to struggle.

    Now the Constitution is not infallible. A case is sometimes made that the Second Amendment is quite wrong, that a wide-spread right to bear arms is not in the nation's best interest. Such a reversal came in the creation and repeal of prohibition. This is, however, a different order of issue than the question of where a particular age should draw the line between "well-ordered" and "right to bear." Comparing the homicide rate in the United States with other similar advanced democracies is a humbling process. On the other hand, that might actually be a reason not to change the Second Amendment at this time. We may not be ready to be too civilized.

    Now, as to what this might mean to religious liberty, I think we need to honestly face the fact that everyone's position has gradually evolved. The issue of child abuse has drawn government deeply into the functions of religion in a way that almost everyone approves. The requirements of income tax exemption law have increasingly come to define proper religious boundaries. So, when conservatives want to change the rules of public display of religious symbols, or challenge the overt teaching of evolution in public schools, or even challenge the institution of public education itself, it is not acceptable to simply wave them away as not in line with traditional thinking on such matters. There is no avoiding the heavy lifting of re-examining the basic principles and theories of the relationships of church and state, and redefining them for a new age. Conflict is the way of the Constitution.