The real meaning of the 1st Amendment

While most secularists take the establishment clause to mean that religion should not interfere with government, read in the context of the whole amendment it should be read to mean that government should not interfere in the affairs of religion (just as govt should not interfere in the affairs of free spech, the press, the right to assemble or petition).

Well, the buzz in Catholic circles is that the Obama administration is working behind the scenes to quiet Catholic bishops regarding the abortion issue.  In particular, it concerns ArchBishop Burke and others who have commented on whether or not Kathleen Sebelius (Obama nominee for Health and Human Services) is fit to take the Eucharist.  The rumor is that the Obama administration is pressuring the Holy See to silence these outspoken bishops, or at least pressuring the See to distance itself from their remarks.

Now, you might think it is silly for Catholics to argue that some Catholics ought not take the Eucharist because of their political views (support for abortion).  But whether that is silly or not is not the issue.  The Catholic Church is free to be silly if it wants.  The issue is whether or not the federal govt should be meddling in the internal affairs of a religion for political ends (namely, to buttress support for Obama with Catholics by downplaying the pro-abortion stance of his nominees).

My view: The Church has every right to butt its head into government affairs – it is a free marketplace of ideas and any religious or non-religious point of view has an equal claim to participate in that marketplace.  But the govt has absolutely no business (up front or behind the scenes) in trying to quiet certain voices within that public square.  THAT is the real meaning of the First Amendment.

Author: Kleiner

Associate Vice Provost and Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.

10 thoughts on “The real meaning of the 1st Amendment”

  1. You also maintain, I assume, that Bush was wrong to use his political influence to advance his religious agenda (which included “right to life” stuff). But wait a minute — I thought you thought that religious beliefs should be in the political mix!


  2. I don’t know many atheists who even subscribe to so radical a view of the First Amendment that it would preclude religious ideas from the marketplace of ideas. Religion has its place in the public square. The Catholic Church absolutely has the right to discipline its members–be they politicians or not. The issue, rather, is government endorsement of religion.

    I don’t see what’s wrong with the Obama administration pressuring the Catholic Church to keep quiet, though. That doesn’t strike me as unconstitutional–absent a law preventing the Catholic Church from speaking out or something.


  3. I think Huenemann misunderstands my point here. I don’t see the establishment clause as a 2-way wall that cannot be penetrated on either side. Rather it is a ‘one-sided’ wall, the wall can be penetrated in one direction but not in the other. So I read the establishment clause to mean that govt should not interfere in the affairs of religion, not that religion should not meddle in the affairs of the state. The problem with establishing a state religion is not, then, that the religion would mess up the state but rather that the state would mess up the religion! By analogy, the problem of govt interference with the press is not that the press would mess up the govt, but that the govt would mess up the press.
    So I have no problem with religion in the public square and, say, Bush (or Obama!) bringing his religious background to bear on certain policy questions (though I would strenuously object to the claim that the pro-life position is a sectarian religious position, again, I always make arguments from natural reason and not from faith on that issue).
    So, religion can meddle with the state as much as it wants, but the state should never meddle with religion. This goes, I should add, for any religion or indeed any ‘comprehensive world-view’. The First Amendment concerns the non-interference of govt in religion, speech, and press and does not, on my reading, concern the interference of religion, speech, and the press in government. As the lost blog stream that Huenemann links discusses, the establishment clause concerns free exercise.
    Jon is not concerned with the Obama administration using the powers of the federal state to silence Position X from speaking freely and openly? I wonder how that principle might apply if Obama were pressuring atheist groups to stop advocating teaching evolution in schools (much less, pressuring atheist groups regarding their own internal affairs like who is invited to atheist conferences!).


  4. Many believe that the separation of church and state means that a religion has no business in the public square. If a religion does try to make its voice heard there is usually an outcry for the government to revoke their tax-exempt status. Jon is right that the issue is government endorsement. Sadly many don’t feel the same way.


  5. Regarding Jon’s remark that most atheists don’t have such an extreme view of the establishment clause – how do you square that with the incredible uproar over the LDS Church’s aggressive involvement in the California public square regarding Prop 8? The near unanimous chorus from secularists is that religion ought to have had no role in that public debate. ‘Keep religion out of politics’, as they say. In other words, secularlists read the establishment clause as a ‘two-sided wall’. In more extreme cases, they read it as a ‘one-sided wall’ that is exactly reversed from what I suggested — where the govt can interfere with religion but religion cannot interfere with govt. Obama’s interference with Catholic bishops is an example of this. So is FOCA, which would require Catholic hospitals to provide abortion services since it would do away with laws that protect conscientious objection. Where govt advances, religion must retreat (as Richard John Neuhaus put it).

    And, to add something to my response to Huenemann: It is a democracy. If people don’t like Bush’s ideas and policies (whether the backdrop for those policies is religious or not), then vote him out. One need not exclude Religion A from being an influence on policy making. If the people don’t like the policies and/or Religion A, they will vote the guy out and vote in someone else who has another summum bonum or idol that drives his decisions. That is how the free marketplace of ideas works in a democracy, isn’t it?


  6. People that donated to the “Yes On Prop 8” side are experiencing a lot of intimidation from their opposition. Their have been lists and google maps setup that show persons who donated as little as $50. I found my sister in law (who supported the measure) on a list showing where she lived, where she worked and her job description. One blogger made a list of donors and asked people to find out which ones were Mormon and who wasn’t.

    There would be a national outcry (and there should be one) if someone made a list telling us if a person was gay and giving out their employment information.

    The whole thing is really creepy.


  7. Kleiner: I didn’t say atheists in general didn’t subscribe to that radical view, I said atheists that I know don’t. ;)

    I may have to backpedal on my remark that the only concern is government endorsement. To be continued…


  8. Fair enough, Jon. You might hang around exceptional atheists (many on this blog think I hang around exceptional theists, not theists representative of the religious majority!). My sense: most atheists that I hear/read seem to take one of the two views I outlined above, both of which sound more ‘extreme’ than what you said.


  9. For what it’s worth, I’m an atheist and I agree with pretty much everything Kleiner has said in this thread, encapsulated in the notion that the Establishment Clause is a one-sided wall. However, I want to know what, exactly, the rumored “pressure” and “working behind the scenes” actually consists of before relinquishing my default assumption that this just the latest example of religious folks’ shrewd abuse of the claim to victimhood. I suspect most atheists in fact hold our view about the Establishment Clause, and simply hold that those who donated to prop 8 should of course be despised, but not discriminated against.


  10. Rob and Kleiner agree on something!! God (or nameless and indifferent Nature) be praised!

    I’ve read nothing more than an article from Austin Ruse (President of the Catholic Family & Human Rights Institute) that amounts to an ‘unnamed source’ rumor:

    ‘And now there is word that someone who is well known among Republicans, and who has served in previous Republican administrations, is reaching out on behalf of the Obama administration to get the Holy See to quiet Burke, or at least to make it clear he speaks not for the Church, but only for himself.’

    Ruse would be pretty well connected with Republican pols in DC, so I rather doubt he is making this up. Rather, I suspect he knows the name of the person and knows that is reaching out to the See on behalf of the Obama administration in this way.


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