This is my post for the Independence Day edition of Blog Against Theocracy. Please visit the site to read other posts, and give the authors feedback!
When I joined the Pennsylvania Bar, I swore an oath to “support, obey and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of this Commonwealth and that I will discharge the duties of my office with fidelity, as well to the court as to the client, that I will use no falsehood, nor delay the cause of any person for lucre or malice.” I take that oath seriously, and have fixed the Constitution as the keystone (couldn’t resist) of my thinking on matters of public importance.
Perhaps no provision of that Constitution is more sacred to me than the First Amendment.
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.
The First Amendment guarantees the most fundamental of human freedoms – the freedom of conscience. Under the Constitution, I may think, say, believe or not believe whatever I like, within very broad bounds, without interference from the government. I may meet together with like minded people, or seek to persuade others to adopt my views. My ideas need be neither orthodox nor popular for me to go about my business in civil society without molestation from the authorities. That is a profound freedom.
Freedom of conscience is, in my estimation, the lynchpin that makes America work. What holds us together in this maelstrom of diversity and disagreement is the simple fact that none of us are compelled to think the way any of the rest of us are. Critically, the Constitution, via the First Amendment, does not pretend to proclaim Truth; rather, the First Amendment sets Americans free to seek Truth on their own, without government interference. In such an atmosphere, people can live alongside others whose opinions they may disagree with or even find repugnant, for the simple fact that they are indeed free to disagree.
The freedom of conscience and inquiry guaranteed by the First Amendment is anathema to religious authority. Religion claims to possess absolute Truth, revealed once and for all through prophets or saviors. Thus, religion declares that free inquiry is fruitless, or worse, an exercise in arrogance and vanity. After all, what limited human mind can ferret out Truth greater than that revealed by the deity? And what decent religious person, knowing the Truth, could stand by while his neighbor persists in error and futile questioning? Shouldn’t he use every means available to convince his “lost” friend of the Truth?
When this religious impulse to impress the truth of revelation on the minds of others becomes married to political power, theocracy is born. With the power of the state at his disposal, the theocrat need not tolerate his neighbor’s persistence in error – he now has the means to establish his belief as the “official” or orthodox version of reality. Proselytizing devloves into coercion; freedom of conscience yields to majority rule.
A society of diverse individuals cannot survive where theocracy holds sway. Dissenters are driven to desperation, factions and sects battle for political control (in the process rendering their religions no more transcendant than tax policy). Far from being a uniting force, the established othodoxy rends the society fabric, dividing citizens into “us” and “them.”
It is my patriotic duty, and my duty under the oath I swore as an attorney, to fight to prevent theocracy from taking root in the United States. Freedom of conscience and inquiry has been one of the foundational strengths that permitted America to escape the parochial divisions of its Old World forbears and step forward as an economic, scientific and political superpower. Those who would impose their religion as the official orthodoxy would see America stripped of this legacy. Because I care about America, because I believe it can be a force and example for good in the world, I will do what I can to stop them.