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Is the First Amendment still working?

Do you know what the First Amendment actually says?  The First Amendment is so broad in scope: six clauses separated by a semi-colon and commas.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;  or abridging the freedom speech, or of the press, or the right of the people to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

We don’t speak the language in the 21st century using the same phrasing and choice of words as the writers and speakers did in the 18th century.  So how do we know what the is spelling out for us? If we took the time to research the Constitution and its language, we would better understand it by reading the books, pamphlets and documents of the period in the Library of Congress and comparing them. But since we don’t take the time, or maybe don’t have enough time, we rely on Constitutional scholars and lawyers to inform us.  Keep up with the Supreme Court decisions and you will agree that the justices are certainly more aware of the language and its nuances than we are, but it still gives them pause when interpreting the phrasing.

Let’s try it: the first 4 words: “Congress shall make no law” (clear enough?). Next 5:  “respecting an establishment of religion” (whoa!)  “respecting”?  today: “pertaining to” would fit. Okay. Next 5: “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;”  You can’t prevent anyone from going to any church or prevent them from even talking about religion. The people are free to believe in God.  Sounds okay, but! It doesn’t say “God”.  Nowhere in the Constitution does it mention any god, goddess, or a God!  Now what? It didn’t say the word “believe” either.

So, before we go any further with the Amendment, we realize how difficult it is to interpret the language of the document. And, this is the first clause–the most important set of words in the whole Amendment–the Establishment Clause–and we are stuck here!

Through the decades of judicial interpretation, Americans have come to understand the evolution of our language and our culture and today we can conclude that NOT believing in a God is okay, too.  “What,” you say?  BUT!  “The framers of the were Christians! This is a Christian nation!”  You’ve heard this, haven’t you?  Have you believed this to be true?

Well, now we get into the interpretation of what was the definition of a Christian in 1776.  How far can we go with this dissection of the First Amendment’s first clause?  Here’s the back story:

The Christians of that time were of several denominations and smaller sects of themselves, plus others:  Anglicans, Baptists, Catholics, Congregationalists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Methodists, Quakers, Presbyterians, and –ALL known as Christians. Episcopalians were an off-shoot of the Anglican church–the Church of England.  Yes, there were smaller groups from time to time, but this list is of the most widely-known at the time, no matter their size of membership. The weren’t officially a denomination until 1825.  However, Thomas aligned himself with the Enlightenment philosophy and the .  And most of us are aware that he was a Deist– the world was created and the creator left us alone after that.  There is no reference to a personal savior in his writings.

An aside: Jefferson cut up a Bible and omitted the miracles and anything related to the supernatural, then re-pasted that which was left into what it is known today as “The Jefferson Bible.”

Unitarians and Universalists at that time were also considered to be . The colonists were not concerned about who was who and what they believed until after the Constitution was written and ratified.  It wasn’t until after 1800 that some churches began to insist on being recognized as the official church of the new nation. Fortunately for us, it was too late and rightly so. NO religious faith or dogma was inserted into the Constitution because religious freedom was one of the dissenting principles in declaring independence from King George and the Parliament’s laws.

A glaring example of religion being involved in government was in the colony of Virginia: in order to be an officer in the colonial government, a man must be a member of the Anglican church. THAT was to be no more. The Baptists supported Jefferson in his reforming the colony of Virginia when it became a state, to assure that no taxes would be collected to support any religious denomination. And so it went for the whole new United States of America–13 in all.

We will leave the rest of the First Amendment to be dissected in another essay.  For now…thank whoever you want to for the USA and its secular Constitution.  It is still working.

 

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