Free Press & Pulpit
Patrick Henry Reardon on the First Amendment
Inasmuch as Christ our Lord obliges all Christians to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s” (Matt. 22:21), I suppose that few of us seriously doubt our common moral duty to take part in the civic life of our nation, including its politics. Even those who fail to notice St. Paul’s contention that this obligation is imposed “for conscience’ sake” (Rom. 13:5) probably live as good citizens, rendering “taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor” (13:7).
Inspired by the Epistle to Diognetus to think that “Christians are in the world what the soul is in the body,” most of us vote, pay taxes, serve on school boards, and organize and contribute to endeavors philanthropic. Some even run for and serve in elected public office. More significantly, the flag of this nation has draped the caskets of Christians slain in her patriotic service.
It is my own persuasion that active patriotism is not optional, and merely sentimental patriotism is no substitute. I believe that we Christians must not separate our Christian faith from our moral responsibilities to this country.
To understand the reason for this, let us recall why freedom of religion is guaranteed in this nation. The context of that guarantee is inscribed in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States: “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.”
It is important to examine carefully the precise wording of this very precisely worded affirmation. It does not say that religion and the press shall be prohibited from bringing political influence and power to bear on Congress. It says, rather, that Congress must not bring political influence and power to bear on religion and the press. In not the slightest respect does the First Amendment restrict the influence and activities of religion and the press with respect to the political life of the nation. The restrictions in this amendment are laid entirely on the government, none of them on religion and the press.
A Free Press
In order to appreciate this distinction, we may consider how the First Amendment commonly applies—and has always applied—to the press. Everyone expects the press to be actively involved in political life. No one is surprised when newspapers, radio stations, and television networks comment at length on political activity. We hear no complaints that a constitutional principle has been violated when a city newspaper or a local television channel espouses a particular political cause or endorses a particular political candidate.
On the contrary, this is exactly what we envisage as healthy to the political process. We welcome the interference of the press in political matters. This is the state of affairs that the First Amendment was painstakingly written to preserve. Those responsible for the crafting of that amendment were convinced that a vigorous and vocal press is beneficial to the life of the nation.
The prohibition that restricts Congress from interfering with the press has never been regarded as some kind of “wall of separation” between government and the press. We do not expect to find on the editorial page of the Chicago Tribune a statement that says, for example, “Although we ourselves personally approve a woman’s right to choose, we refrain from pushing the point in these pages, lest we appear to be imposing our own moral persuasion on the normal workings of the courts and the legislature. The traditional wall of separation between Press and State must be maintained at all peril.”
Likewise, we would be more than slightly miffed if the Weekly Standard were to declare, “No standard is more serious than the separation of government and the press. Therefore, we think it inappropriate for us to interject our own views into the political process and impose our morality on others. We are willing to admit, however, strictly in our private and personal capacity, that our own view of ‘gay marriage’ is something other than completely favorable.” We never expect statements like that from the press.
On the contrary, we take it as obvious that the Chicago Tribune and the Weekly Standard can say whatever they want on any subject under the sun, including the workings of government, and this is precisely the function they serve in civil society. If the instruments of the press refuse to do this, they fail in that very responsibility envisaged by the principle of freedom of the press. Furthermore, the freedom of the press from governmental interference presupposes a prior freedom, the freedom of citizens to read or not read what the press has to say. Freedom of the press, that is to say, involves freedom from the press.
A free press, after all, does not mean that we don’t have to pay for our newspapers. The press enjoys freedom from governmental coercion, but it must answer to its readers. They too are free, and if they become sufficiently disgruntled with the editorial page, or any other aspect of the newspaper, they may not renew their subscriptions. They may boycott the advertisers. There is a host of things they may do to express their freedom from the press. In short, the freedom of the press also presumes that the citizenry itself is free with respect to the press. No one is obliged to read newspapers.
A Free Church
Now, because the same First Amendment that guarantees freedom of the press guarantees freedom of religion, what is true of the one with respect to its freedom is true of the other. If there is no “wall of separation” between Press and State, there is certainly no such wall separating Church and State. Just as the First Amendment lays no restrictions on the press in political matters, it lays no restrictions on religion in political matters. Each is governed by an identical provision for its freedom.
For the same reason, if we expect the press to argue for its own views with respect to the decisions and workings of government, we should expect no less from the churches. If we are not shocked when a newspaper editor takes a very firm stand in favor of “abortion rights” and employs all the influence of his position to advance this view, it is illogical to be shocked when a bishop takes a very firm stand in favor of “the rights of the unborn” and employs all the influence of his position to advance that view. The same First Amendment protects both the editor and the bishop. The government neither ties nor shortens the arm of either.
Freedom of religion likewise implies not only that the government may not interfere with churches, but also that citizens are free to join or not join those churches. In the perspective of the First Amendment, American citizens may change their churches as readily as they change their newspapers. The government is as little concerned with a citizen’s shift from the Methodists to the Presbyterians as with his switching over from Fox News to CNN. No one is obliged to belong to a church. The government doesn’t care, and it shouldn’t care.
In this country, churches and newspapers are compelled to operate in a competitive open market. They must take their chances with the citizens. Government offers churches and newspapers no guarantee except that of freedom. Such is the provision of the First Amendment.
Churches and newspapers, moreover, are free institutions in two senses; the government may not interfere with them, and no citizen is obliged to take them seriously. What the First Amendment says to the press, it says also to churches: “You, my friends, are on your own.”
The motive inspiring the First Amendment is the key to its understanding. It was the conviction of the founders of this country that the freedom of Americans was to be embodied and expressed in institutions other than the government. They did not believe that the government had all the answers.
The government, on the contrary, because it bears not the sword in vain, always has about it some aspect of coercion. The better to insure the government’s own freedom, therefore, the First Amendment provides that there will always be other institutions left free to bring their own influence to bear on the government. Chief among these institutions are the press and the churches. The press and the churches, understanding this to be their role, have always functioned this way.
The major historical example of this truth perhaps provides its best illustration. Namely, the abolition of slavery. Long prior to its resolution by other constitutional amendments, and even before it was partly settled in the blood and carnage of a hundred battlefields, this weighty question was argued from the press and the pulpit. In the matter of slavery, it was the lighting of the conscience that led to the firing of the cannon. Ardent newspaper readers and devout churchgoers were the people ultimately to be credited, under God, for the extraction of that great scourge which even our American Constitution had been unable to remove. It was, in large measure, freedoms of religion and the press that brought about the freedom of the slave.
In every large crisis faced by this nation since its founding, religion and the press have brought the resources of their own wisdom to bear on the decisions of the government. This is exactly what the First Amendment had in mind when it provided that the press and the church should be completely free to address the conscience and shape the mind of the American public.
In recent decades, however, there has arisen the very strange notion, promoted mainly by irreligious people, that the churches are supposed to remain quiet about civic and political matters, for fear of “interfering with the business of government.” Our forebears would have regarded that thought as weird indeed. They expected the churches to interfere. They wanted the churches to interfere. Indeed, they provided a specific constitutional amendment to guarantee that the churches would interfere.
The First Amendment is, in fact, a great declaration of humility. It declares that the State does not know everything. It makes available to the State the wisdom of a free press and free churches that are not beholden to it. It says with respect to the churches and the press, “You know, my friends, I am going to keep my hands off you, because I want to be sure that if, down the road, I should start to go wrong, you will feel completely free to show me the error of my ways and pull me back to the path of righteousness.”
The last thing this country needs is a church or a press that is answerable to the government. On the contrary, the church and the press must be guaranteed such freedom as they need to talk back to the government, to challenge the government if necessary, and to instruct the government in matters beyond the government’s normal competence.
Now this is the reason why we believers cannot and must not separate our faith and religious commitment from our responsibility as American citizens. If Christians do not bring to bear on American civic and political life—and to the attention of the American government—the dispositions, strengths, and perspectives of the Christian gospel, they will fail in their duties as American citizens. They will fall short in the very responsibility implied in the freedom that the First Amendment guarantees to religion.
This does not mean that Christians will invariably agree among themselves with respect to every political question. The application of a Christian perspective to the complexities of political life is subject to a wide range of opinions respecting individual points of law and policy. Such applications are governed, not by eternal principles, but by applied prudence. Christians may argue for or against any number of political proposals, affecting such matters as health care, retirement benefits, welfare reform, school curricula, homeland defense, campaign finance reform, gun laws, and so on.
Just as Christian citizens may legitimately take differing sides before a municipal council considering, say, the wisdom of making Chestnut Street one-way going west, so Christian citizens may take differing sides about the morality and wisdom of going to war with another country. On many such matters we should expect a variety of views among Christians themselves.
There are limits to this expected variety, however, and at present it seems to me that these limits must especially be recognized. From the perspective of morality, American civic life at present seems especially perilous on certain specific matters on which we should not expect Christians to disagree.
Among the components of that peril, three seem especially worthy of our attention: first, the vast but entirely legal slaughter of unborn children; second, the use of infant stem cells for scientific research; and third, the current movement to change the definition of marriage to make it other than a lifelong union between one man and one woman.
All three of these matters invade the central core of human existence more directly than any other ethical problem currently posed to the American conscience. It is difficult to imagine any legal provision in American history more “anti-life” than legalized abortion, the legal use of human embryos for scientific experimentation, and the legalizing of homosexual unions.
The Serious Questions
Among the public questions posed to the Christian conscience in American society today, any of these three seems of greater weight and significance than all other contemporary active moral questions combined. Each of them deserves to be put on the same level of moral seriousness and social gravity that we properly assigned to the institution of slavery. If, as Abraham Lincoln argued, the national house could not remain divided on the question of slavery, it most certainly cannot remain divided on the questions of what constitutes a human being and what constitutes a marriage.
As it happens, all of these matters have been under intense discussion during the current year of political decisions, and shall be until these scourges are removed. These are not subjects on which the Christian churches and individual Christians can afford to be either silent or ineffective.
An earlier version of “Free Press & Pulpit” appeared in Again magazine (www.conciliarpress.com/again).
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“Free Press & Pulpit” first appeared in the November 2004 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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