How political flip-flop ensured religious freedom

Friday, November 3, 2006

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The First Amendment as we know it, in fact the entire Bill of Rights, might not exist if not for a concerned Baptist minister, First Amendment Center Founder John Seigenthaler told an audience today.

In 1788, the Rev. John Leland contacted politician James Madison, a fellow Virginian, to express concern about the Constitution that recently had been sent to the states for ratification. As a member of what was then a minority religious sect, Leland was troubled that the draft Constitution contained no protections for religious liberty and was convinced, as were many other citizens and politicians, that the people needed a bill of rights.

However, Madison, who had helped draft the Constitution and was now campaigning to represent Virginia in the First Congress, had publicly dismissed the idea, reasoning there was no need to protect freedoms already considered inalienable and protected by a carefully balanced government.

Leland pleaded his case. Madison listened — and agreed, pulling the “first major public flip-flop in the history of American politics,” Seigenthaler said. Madison vowed, if elected, to push for a bill explicitly enumerating freedoms guaranteed to all citizens. He followed through on his promise and introduced the bill on June 8, 1789, hence becoming the father of the Bill of Rights.

In “One Nation Under God: Indivisible or Divisible,” the fourth in a series of lectures at the center exploring the history of the First Amendment, Seigenthaler used the story of Leland’s oft-forgotten role to fill what he calls a “hole” in Americans’ commonly accepted history.

Addressing another of these holes, Seigenthaler examined the belief that the United States is a Christian nation. While the country’s first colonists, the Pilgrims, were indeed Christians, Seigenthaler said, few people today would likely embrace their beliefs or lifestyle. Having fled religious persecution in their native country, the Pilgrims arrived in the New World and proceeded to establish a church-state “whose members were judged and judged harshly — as Christian citizens,” Seigenthaler said. Those who professed religious beliefs that differed from theirs often were forced to leave the colony, as was the Rev. Roger Williams, who went on to establish a new, more open community in Rhode Island that he named Providence.

Had some of the country’s Founding Fathers been present in the Pilgrims’ Massachusetts Bay Colony, they too would have been expelled, Seigenthaler said. From Benjamin Franklin, a professed Deist, to Thomas Jefferson, a religious skeptic, to George Washington, a churchgoer who, according to his pastors, regularly refused to take Communion and was a Deist, many of the nation’s founders professed religious beliefs that probably would be questioned by the Pilgrims as well as many people today.

It was Jefferson, Seigenthaler said, who coined the metaphor “wall of separation” to refer to the First Amendment’s religion clauses. While many religious leaders point out that the phrase does not appear in the Constitution, Seigenthaler said, the courts have relied heavily on Jefferson’s metaphor in ruling in religious cases.

“What the court has made of Jefferson’s wall has now become a legal barrier,” Seigenthaler said. “No constitutional freedom, not even that of religion, is absolute. But if you look at what the courts have said, you know the wall is difficult to get over or under or around or to tear down.”

As the courts’ interpretation of the First Amendment and the public’s reaction to this interpretation demonstrate, the founders “stirred a pot of trouble” with the 16 words of the amendment’s religious-liberty clauses, Seigenthaler said. But through those words, they also laid the foundation for the country to become the religiously diverse nation that it is today.

“What a different country we might have had if the Constitution had embraced the majority religion of that day, Anglicanism … as an official doctrine of a country whose religious diversity was expanding already exponentially,” Seigenthaler said. “Under a universal state religion, would our land have been such a compelling magnet, attracting diverse citizens from foreign shores?”

One issue threatening religious diversity in the United States today is the treatment of Muslims in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Seigenthaler said. After the attacks, many Muslims who were U.S. citizens “were subjected to government arrest, inquiry, (and) persecution,” he said. Others “who were not citizens were deported in secret hearings, without advice of counsel (and with) no chance for judicial review.”

In the midst of this, Seigenthaler said, the country and its citizens must make the First Amendment ring true today.

“Our country will not live up to its legacy of religious tolerance if we make [Muslims] feel as Roger Williams once felt — persecuted,” he said. “There can be no greater challenge to the freest country in the history of the world than making the 16 words of the First Amendment meaningful for all.”