Saturday, April 2, 2011

First Amendment Refresher

Why is it that many conservatives, who profess to love the Constitution so much, seem to need schooling in some of its most basic provisions? First there was House Minority Whip Eric Cantor, who demonstrated his lack of familiarity with the provisions of Article I, section 7, dealing with how a bill becomes a law.

Then there is Pastor Terry Jones, who probably believed he was well within his First Amendment rights by burning a Koran, which provoked violent protests in Afghanistan, including the killing of more than twenty people. Technically, Jones might be right. The First Amendment does protect all kinds of provocative speech, and unless Pastor Jones was directly inciting his listeners to imminent violence, he was entitled to make whatever hateful comments he chose to make, including the symbolic speech of Koran-burning. But Pastor Jones was ignoring two other important aspects of the First Amendment, and for that reason his own speech must be condemned as profoundly un-American.

First, he ignores the fact that Muslims have the same free speech rights as he does. If he wants to condemn their teachings or disagree with them, he has the right to do that, but if he wants to be seen as a patriotic American, he also needs to defend Muslims' First Amendment right to publish their own teachings. What that means is that burning books of any sort is absolutely contrary to the spirit of the First Amendment. The philosophy behind the First Amendment holds that the remedy for speech you don't like is more speech, not censorship.

Second, he ignores those clauses of the First Amendment dealing directly with religion, those prohibiting government establishment of religion, and protecting the free exercise of religion. In our Constitution, contrary to the claims of many so-called Christians, no religion is held up above any other, and religious tolerance is mandated. What that means is that, again, it is absolutely contrary to the spirit of the First Amendment to condemn any religion in blanket terms. Certainly that doesn't prohibit a vigorous theological debate. And it doesn't even preclude anyone from condemning particular religious practices. If a particular religious cult practiced human sacrifice, for example, that would be illegal, notwithstanding the free exercise clause. If Pastor Jones wants to tell his congregation that he believes any particular tenets of Islam are abhorrent to him, he is free to do so. But condemning an entire religion practiced by hundreds of millions of people in many different ways, by burning its most sacred text is not showing the kind of religious tolerance that the First Amendment would seem to encourage.

Pastor Jones says that we should reserve our outrage and condemnation for the people who committed horrific violent acts in Afghanistan this week, and that these acts only prove his claim about the violent nature of Islamic teachings. And he's right that we should condemn those who committed those acts, and bring them to justice. That does not excuse Pastor Jones, however, from trampling not only on the sacred texts of Muslims, but also on the sacred text of our nation. The violent reaction in Afghanistan only proves his own stupidity and stubbornness.


  1. To suggest that Terry Jones represents conservatives is like saying Minister Louis Farrakhan represents progressives. You don't believe it and those who may be swayed by you would require naive falsification.

  2. Terry Jones represents nobody except maybe the 12 or so members of his congregation, although I'm sure there are a few others who sympathize with his views. He is certainly conservative, but if you think I said he represents all conservatives you are reading something into my piece that I did not mean to say.

    What I would say is that there is a strand of conservatism that is deeply intolerant and that also has a tendency to interpret texts (including the Constitution, the Bible and other texts) in a selective way that suits their narrow-minded, intolerant views. Terry Jones is certainly one of those. I would not call Louis Farrakhan a progressive, but I would agree that there are people who call themselves leftists who are also intolerant and narrow-minded.

  3. That's not what you said, but thanks for clarifying. I could say 'why do so many progressives hate Israel' and then go off on a Minister Louis Farrakhan rant and I would be equally guilty of misleading. So I won't do that.

  4. If someone wants to burn the flag, a copy of the Constitution, the Koran, or a Cat in the Hat book I'm not going to go behead a bunch of people.

  5. Joe, I also think he represents a whole lot of people. I grew up in Kansas. My sister told me that 60% of Kansans believe Obama is a Muslim. Jones is as crazy and conservative as the loony tune preacher from Topeka, Kansas, who protests at soldiers funerals. They believe that if a soldier was killed, it was because he or she was gay. In other words, they were punished by god for their sin. This country is filled with superstitious, undereducated people.

  6. I agree with dorothy, there are more than a few superstitious, undereducated people running around. The same number on the right as the left; which is far too many. But it's not a party issue. It crosses party lines. I am certain all the readers of this blog and our host understand.

    Remember the jokes "you know you're a red neck if ... "? Well, if a person can't see that these 'ignorance' issues cross party lines then there is strong evidence they are ignorant. Like I said, well know better, right?

  7. Well, the way I see it is, if he wants to burn a book and look like a completely hypocritical moron, then let him do it.

    Afterall, that is the irony of the First Amendment isn't it? It allows people to say and do things that are completely contrary to its spirit. The Founders knew this; they knew it wouldn't be pretty. But they figured that it'd be better to give idiots a voice rather than stifle them.

    What's worse is that many Republicans and conservatives in general get lumped in with that moron. Because fools like him happen to vote R, the rest of us get branded as ignorant hatemongers. Guys like him are symptomatic of the breakdown in anything intelligent in the Republican party, and because they know that people like him will vote for them, they capitalize on it.

    Heartbreaking when you feel your party has left you behind.

  8. Heartbreaking all the way around. Crazy. My unhappy view: (1) that Jones, a radical Chrsitain -- would do such a thing in light of the obvious danger. (2) that innocent people were slaughtered by radicalized Muslims. They slaughtered human beings in rsponse to a book burning. Number 2 reminds me of Charlie Manson's "Helter Skeltor". F*cking insane.

    (3) is that the far left would equate Jones to "conservatives". That is low ...

  9. Thanks for stopping by, Jack. I checked out your blog. Very entertaining.

  10. Haha, thanks. I'm a little more crass on my own blog, but that's to get people interested.

    There's a message under all the cursing and insults ;-)