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.
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.