Robert B. Charles, a former assistant secretary of state under President George W. Bush, currently leads a consulting group in Washington.
Strange how the world turns, and how, in this turning world, precepts embodied in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights, again and again, turn out to be the “still point.” Strange, too, how a few key rights preserve us, reaffirm what the Founders expected of us, what we should expect of each other and what we should expect — and not expect — of the federal government.
Take the rights of free speech and free exercise of religion, cornerstones of the Bill of Rights. Today, in one way or another, both rights are under fire. The federal government encroaches more on them each day, and average Americans wonder what is next. The political right blames the political left for government overreach; meantime, the left blames the right for indifference. The left implicitly trusts government to know what is best, while the right implicitly distrusts the government, as our Founders did, in favor of individuals enlightened by their own moral compass. Wherever you fall on that continuum, these two freedoms must remain untouched, unencumbered, unencroached upon by government. Here is why.
Two historical examples, seldom discussed, make the point. The first is Henry David Thoreau. The second is religion’s role in ending slavery. Celebrated by left-leaning environmentalists, Thoreau is a figure who, in his day, led the cause of appreciation for America’s grand, incomparable wild. His seminal 1854 book, “Walden,” describes his two-year seclusion in nature, where he learned self-reliance, simplicity and conservation. This book, supplemented by others, such as “The Maine Woods,” kicked off a new awareness by Americans of nature.
OK, fair enough. Now look at the role of the First Amendment. Look at how this American thought leader, lofted to defend environmental regulation and encroachment on property rights, might have fared. Beyond appreciation of nature, Thoreau defied interference by government in his life. Today, he would probably be shocked to see the level of government encroachment on individual liberties.
Thoreau’s 1849 essay, “Resistance to Civil Government,” and his assertion of free speech to defy the government on selected taxes, would put him behind bars for years in today’s America. In 1849, it landed him there for one day. Had he faced a modern prison term for exercising his free speech, he would never have spent the next two years at Walden Pond or written the very book environmentalists now revere. In short, had his First Amendment rights been amputated, as they might be today, Thoreau’s celebration of the environment would never have been written.
Today, the individual’s right to live by a moral code defined by his free exercise of religion is being pummeled by government. Nowhere is religion, particularly Christianity, more accosted than by self-described leftists, those who seek out ways to impugn faith in the name of atheism, secularism, humanism and agnosticism. So, here is the irony. Without an open, free and unrestricted right to worship, without an ability to compel government to respect that right, the rise of anti-slavery and abolitionism, would have been impeded. This call to freedom began in America’s pulpits, and from there abolitionism took wing. That is why “men of the cloth” had to stand their ground; they were often prosecuted by government. Thus, the Rev. Jacob Gruber, of Maryland, was prosecuted for sermons on faith and freedom, and the Rev. Jarvis Bacon, of Virginia, was similarly prosecuted. In Louisiana, the linkage of faith and freedom from “the pulpit” was punishable by death.
So, there it is, the importance of unrestricted freedom to religious faith, a central force that preserves morality, freedom and equality. No wonder even congressmen rose to defend free exercise of religion. In the middle of the 19th century, Rep. Owen Lovejoy, Illinois Republican, for example, boldly condemned laws that “imprison or exile preachers of the Gospel,” noting that words from the pulpit are among “the privileges and immunities of the Constitution which guarantees to me free speech.” Unrestricted freedom to worship in accord with individual belief accelerated the society’s movement toward wider freedom.
All this would be airy and irrelevant, if not for very recent decisions by the federal government that erode, erase and encroach — yet again — on our free speech and worship. While there are well-established limits, there is absolutely no place in a society grounded in these rights for prosecution or harassment, condemnation, limitation or isolation of those who revere these two constitutional rights, to free speech and exercise of religion.
Unless we want to disavow Thoreau’s wisdom and the moral righteousness of abolitionism, we can hardly afford now to walk back these sacred rights. If we still think integrity matters and hypocrisy is to be avoided, take a breath. Let’s try to be more patient with each other, and all of us less reliant on the government to guide us. What government snuffs out for one today, it can snuff for all tomorrow. That is not our America. As the world turns, the still point remains — our Constitution. Let’s not be afraid to know its history, and to say so.