Is the First Amendment an aspiration, or reality?

Freedom of Religion: do we really have it? During our passage from Juneteenth to the Fourth of July this year, I’ve been thinking a lot about the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights. And especially the specific freedoms it enshrines.

The “Defund or Abolish the Police” movement has driven me (along with many others) to take some long, hard looks at the institution of policing, its history, and what it could become, if remade in a better way.

But—also in light of recent events—I’ve begun to wonder: Is the First Amendment just as aspirational as the police motto “To Protect and Serve”? In this and several future posts, I’ll consider our ideals, and how they add up next to our reality.

The text of the First Amendment to the US Constitution reads: “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.”
Many thanks to Indivisible of Door County, WI.

Freedom of Religion

Today’s post interrogates the first sentence in the First Amendment (but not using the Reid Technique).

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” is how the First Amendment begins. Yet, for much of our history, Americans have—and still do—strenuously seek to limit, abridge, and deny the religious freedom of others.

Superimposed over a painting of Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson working on a document are the words: "We've just created the separation of Church and State. It's so simple, a child can understand it. Right?"
Many thanks to Imgflip and Marshal Tenner Winter for this image.

Black people

Since well before the birth of the United States as a country Black people were enslaved in North America. Freedom of religion was one of the many freedoms they were denied.

For centuries, the home religions of enslaved persons were suppressed by many slaveowners. Some resisted converting their slaves to Christianity because it might make them seem “too equal.” And some enslaved Muslims tried to hold onto their religion.

But most owners insisted they be converted, to make them see their enslaved state as God’s law. Some even altered the Bibles they allowed their slaves to have—they feared the Exodus story might give them too many ideas.

It didn’t ultimately work. The Black Church became a powerful force for freedom. But those slaveowners and their enablers gave religious suppression a real good shot. And they successfully stamped out a lot of African beliefs, or forced them to “go underground.”

This quote from Thomas Paine reads, ““Spiritual freedom is the root of political liberty...As the union between spiritual freedom and political liberty seems nearly inseparable, it is our duty to defend both.”
Many thanks to Ammo.Com.

Native Americans

The American authorities made far fewer bones about suppressing Native American spiritual and religious beliefs. “Freedom of religion for Indians” was never a consideration, even well into recent times.

They didn’t go about it quite like European invaders in what would become Mexican, and later western U.S. territories. Those “missionaries” enslaved and forcefully converted the Indians under their control.

But the US Government focused increasingly virulent ethnic cleansing energy on “pagan” ceremonies, starting in the 1830s. They made many practices illegal, punishable by imprisonment.

They often forcibly kidnapped children and held them in boarding schools where their home languages, customs, and spirituality were brutally suppressed. This continued well into the 20th Century.

This graphic design by Mark Forton, based on the US flag, features symbols of many major religions in the "star field" with the words "Religious Freedom Makes America Great" below.
Right on, designer Mark Forton! This image is available on several products.

Contemporary hate and intolerance

More recently, white supremacists have felt free to attack churches, synagogues, and temples. Using domestic terrorism to suppress religious diversity flies in the face of the First Amendment, but law enforcement usually has focused on the egregious violence to persons and property. I wrote about this last year on my Artdog Adventures blog.

Lawmakers have tried and sometimes succeeded to use Christianity as an excuse to discriminate against LGBTQIA+ individuals, in what future generations may view as a violation of the “establishment clause.”

The organization Human Rights Watch published a US map in 2018 that highlighted states with what it called "License to Discriminate" Laws, attacking LGBTQIA+ rights in the areas of adoption and foster care, counseling, and more. The states are: North Dakota, South Dakota, Michigan, Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas.
Many thanks to Human Rights Watch for this map.

Some people welcome these laws and court rulings as “freedom of religion.” But many others see them as “freedom to discriminate.”

And unfortunately the current President of the United States seems determined to violate the full spectrum of First Amendment. He got started right away on freedom of religion.

Early his first year, he tried to keep Muslims from several countries out of the U.S. And eventually he succeeded. Does he value the appearances and trappings of religion far more than the substance? Looks that way to this writer.

How far have we really come?

We like to think that, as a nation, we’ve come a long way forward into a more equitable and enlightened society. We earnestly want to believe Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s words, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

But recent events have laid bare just how deeply our country is divided. We disagree more sharply than ever on liberal/conservative lines. This has even gotten to the point where we disagree over simple public safety measures.

Savage injustices tear us apart on many other fronts, too. Economic equality. Access to health care. Our dealings with the justice system. And many more. So of course the intolerance issues extend to freedom of religion.

The challenge before us is clear. If we want that arc to bend toward justice, we must work to make sure it heads that way.


Many thanks to Indivisible of Door County, WI, for the text-image of the First Amendment. I want to thank Imgflip and Marshal Tenner Winter for the “So simple a child can understand” image. Much gratitude to Ammo.Com, for the Thomas Paine quote. And many thanks to Human Rights Watch for the “License to Discriminate” map. I appreciate you all!