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Giving thanks for fragile freedoms
Inside the First Amendment

By Charles C. Haynes
First Amendment Center senior scholar

For a nation at war with terror at home and abroad, Thanksgiving is far more than turkey and football.

It’s a time to give thanks for the comfort of family and friends — and to mourn with those who have empty seats at their holiday table.

So we gather together once again this year — but we do so with much sadness and some anxiety. Everything from getting on an airplane to opening the mail is a bit nerve-racking right now. And of course we worry about those on the front lines of the struggle against a network of hate and fear around the globe.

Suddenly freedom seems very fragile.

But in more complacent times, we tend to forget that democratic freedom is always fragile. After all, in the long history of the world, America is still a new experiment in liberty. Like all new inventions it comes with no guarantees. Without our vigilance, it may finally fail.

Now that our freedoms are under attack, we’ve awakened to just how much we have to lose.

This new anxiety about the fragility of freedom makes this Thanksgiving more like that mythic first day of thanksgiving re-created in countless elementary classrooms each November.

The Pilgrims survived the difficult voyage, but they landed in 1620 on the edge of what William Bradford called a “hideous and desolate wilderness.” Only six weeks later, Bradford’s own wife drowned over the side of the Mayflower. Soon sickness felled more than half the colony, including 13 of the 18 wives. Life was indeed fragile — and the cost of freedom high.

What sustained Plymouth colony, in addition to strong religious faith, was a covenant amongst the members themselves — the famous Mayflower Compact — in which they agreed to be governed by “just and equal” laws. Long before John Locke and the Enlightenment, the Pilgrims were committed to founding a government based on free consent of the governed.

Puritan religious ideas about covenant in the 17th century helped to shape American ideas about secular constitutions in the 18th century. In some important ways, our vision of “We the People” owes much to those early New England colonists.

But a compact or covenant without provision for dissent — for diversity of opinion and liberty of conscience — is not enough to ensure freedom. Remember, there were “Strangers” in the midst of the “Saints” aboard the Mayflower. In fact, fewer than half of the passengers shared the religious vision and convictions of the Pilgrims. The failure of the Pilgrims and the Puritans of New England to make room for freedom of conscience soon led to conflicts that undermined their covenant and tore apart their unity.

That’s why more than 150 years later, George Mason and other Founders insisted on adding a Bill of Rights to the Constitution. Yes, we are part of a charter — “We the People.” And under that charter we form a government and consent to be ruled by its laws.

But we are also a diverse nation of many faiths, cultures, and convictions. The Bill of Rights, especially the First Amendment, guards against the tyranny of the majority, the worst danger of democracy. Unlike the Pilgrims, we make room for differences and dissent, even as we strive to work together for the common good.

Is this messy? Of course it is. The public square of America is the messiest, most crowded, contentious and open place in the world. That’s what freedom looks like.

And that’s one reason the Taliban, al-Qaida, and all others who would impose their ideology on all people hate America today. As President Bush put it on Sept. 20, they “hate our freedoms, our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”

So let’s be thankful that we are the heirs to this messy, daring experiment in freedom we call “America.” And let’s transform our anxiety into resolve. Freedom may be fragile, but we’ve defended it before and we will again.

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