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 is short and to the point, yet powerful. The First Amendment deals with what have come to be known as the “Rights of Conscience.” This is the right to dissent without fear of reprisal from the government. The history of Europeans on this continent prior to the Revolution dealt, in no small part, with religious oppression in Europe. Whether the Anglican Church in England, the Church of Denmark, or religious orders in other places, Christian denominations throughout Europe had been corrupted by becoming intertwined with governments. Religious leaders would appoint or endorse kings and other political leaders while these same leaders would appoint religious leaders. The intertwining of religion and politics corrupted the message of the church to the point where governments would punish people whose denomination differed from the state sanctioned religious order.
The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment was written to prevent this type of oppression in the United States. This clause is meant to keep a single sect from gaining control of the congress and by law imposing their view of God on others. This clause is also intended to keep religious discourse open so that people of different faiths can have a dialog without fear of someone being silenced by the government. The Founders did not see this as proselytizing but as the free flow of ideas. The validity of a person’s views should be decided by the strength of their debate not by government edict. Keeping the government neutral on matters of conscience is vital. The government should not have a rooting interest.
Does this mean we should “leave our faith inside the doors of a church?” Well, according to President John Adams, no. Adams said “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people”. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” For Adams this was not a statement of faith but of governance.
The Founders strove for the Constitution to be a minimalist document. Rather than legislating every aspect of life, the restraints on illegal or immoral behavior should come from a sort of “national conscience.” When we strive to legislate morality, inevitably the morality being legislated is dependent on who is in power. The 18th Amendment prohibiting alcohol in the country was a knee jerk reaction to pressure from the Temperance movement of the late 19th and early 20th century. After a decade, it was abundantly clear that rather than solving a problem, the Amendment created a whole group of other problems. Speak easys, bathtub gin, open gang warfare in cities like Chicago, all demonstrated graphically that the government could not enforce the law. In 1933, the 20th Amendment repealed prohibition.
A law will never change a person’s heart. Human nature is to dig in when someone tries to change us. The only way we can make genuine, lasting change in people is to share our beliefs and faith with them openly. That is why the free flow of ideas, especially those influencing the culture and society, is vital. The Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment protects that right. We must be diligent to never allow it to be infringed.