This is the seventh in a series of posts closely reading the Constitution of the United States for homeland security implications. Readers are encouraged to use the comment function to add background, analysis, exegesis or exposition related to the text highlighted.
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
The Bill of Rights was adopted to address the concern of many Americans that the seven article Constitution ratified in 1788 was insufficiently explicit regarding the nature of liberty. Or in the words of the first Congress assembled under the Constitution, “in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its (the Constitution’s) powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added.” Government restraint is an essential corollary of individual liberty.
The First Amendment treats together three rights that were viewed “of a piece” in 1789 in a way we may now not readily recognize.
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.
Freedom of conscience was, especially, freedom of religious belief and unbelief. From this freedom of opinion in matters religious emerges a radical understanding of the role of belief — and reason — in other matters. In his 1777 draft of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, Jefferson wrote:
To suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion, and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency, is a dangerous fallacy.
While Jefferson’s text was focused on religious opinion, its wider implications were clear enough. This is one of the reasons the Statute was not adopted by Virginia until 1786. Patrick Henry, another champion of liberty, did not quite agree. But once we acknowledge our understanding of ultimate reality — of God — as a matter of opinion, our differences of opinion regarding other matters become such that “all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain.”
In the late 18th Century the blessings of liberty were often linked to life and property, but when taken alone liberty was the ability to believe, to discuss, and to argue what one understands to be true without the government interfering. From this blessing it was thought would flow many others.
This has many implications for homeland security, but there is a particular relevance for counter-terrorism. Religious liberty desacralizes government. Government is understood as the province only of human reason and very human folly. To understand how radical this notion remains, look to Iran, Egypt, India, or the charter of the German Christian Democratic Union (CDU), or even our old nemesis the British monarchy. It is also possible to look closer to home.
We continue to refine our opinions.