Why the First Amendment is ‘first in importance’

This essay was originally published in the Washington Times.

The First Amendment is first, not simply because it falls at the beginning of a list of amendments, but because it articulates the first freedom and the nature of that freedom. It guarantees the freedom essential to humans as rational beings.

By connecting the freedom of religion with the freedom of speech, the First Amendment gets to the essence of what it is to be a human — for it is self-evident that we are thinking beings. We use reason to form thoughts, and we think in order to make sense of, or give meaning to, our experiences in light of our basic beliefs.
Our most basic beliefs answer the most basic questions that can logically be asked. These include beliefs about authority, existence and value. Because of how these beliefs shape the rest of our worldview, and because of their relationship to our search for meaning, they are identified as our religious beliefs.

To be concerned for thinking, reason and meaning is to be concerned for common ground in human civilization.

The historical circumstances of the First Amendment might include the background of the European Wars of Religion and the role of the Church of England in the British government. However, philosophically, it is about what is needed for humans as rational beings to prosper.

After the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 ended the religious wars, an increased but still limited freedom of religion was enforced.

Today, the First Amendment protects against coercion in matters of religious belief and practice. This is because coercion is contrary to the nature of belief and thought.

Although a person can in some measure be coerced into outward conformity, it is impossible to impose a change of belief through external laws. At best, it makes a person agree until the threat of force is removed.

In beliefs about the basic questions, any attempt to impose agreement without understanding is contrary to the nature of thought. There is a natural liberty of thought that is, in the words of the Declaration, inalienable.

To read the rest, visit the Washington Times.

Owen Anderson, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the New College at Arizona State University, where he teaches courses in philosophy and religious studies. He has been a fellow of the James Madison Program at Princeton University and is the author of “The Declaration of Independence and God: Self-Evident Truths in American Law” (Cambridge University Press, 2015).

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