NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The First Amendment as we know it, in fact the entire Bill
of Rights, might not exist if not for a concerned Baptist minister, First
Amendment Center Founder John Seigenthaler told an audience today.
In 1788, the Rev. John Leland contacted politician James Madison, a fellow
Virginian, to express concern about the Constitution that recently had been sent
to the states for ratification. As a member of what was then a minority
religious sect, Leland was troubled that the draft Constitution contained no
protections for religious liberty and was convinced, as were many other citizens
and politicians, that the people needed a bill of rights.
However, Madison, who had helped draft the Constitution and was now
campaigning to represent Virginia in the First Congress, had publicly dismissed
the idea, reasoning there was no need to protect freedoms already considered
inalienable and protected by a carefully balanced government.
Leland pleaded his case. Madison listened — and agreed, pulling the “first
major public flip-flop in the history of American politics,” Seigenthaler said.
Madison vowed, if elected, to push for a bill explicitly enumerating freedoms
guaranteed to all citizens. He followed through on his promise and introduced
the bill on June 8, 1789, hence becoming the father of the Bill of Rights.
In “One Nation Under God: Indivisible or Divisible,” the fourth in a series
of lectures at the center exploring the history of the First Amendment,
Seigenthaler used the story of Leland’s oft-forgotten role to fill what he calls
a “hole” in Americans’ commonly accepted history.
Addressing another of these holes, Seigenthaler examined the belief that the
United States is a Christian nation. While the country’s first colonists, the
Pilgrims, were indeed Christians, Seigenthaler said, few people today would
likely embrace their beliefs or lifestyle. Having fled religious persecution in
their native country, the Pilgrims arrived in the New World and proceeded to
establish a church-state “whose members were judged and judged harshly — as
Christian citizens,” Seigenthaler said. Those who professed religious beliefs
that differed from theirs often were forced to leave the colony, as was the Rev.
Roger Williams, who went on to establish a new, more open community in Rhode
Island that he named Providence.
Had some of the country’s Founding Fathers been present in the Pilgrims’
Massachusetts Bay Colony, they too would have been expelled, Seigenthaler said.
From Benjamin Franklin, a professed Deist, to Thomas Jefferson, a religious
skeptic, to George Washington, a churchgoer who, according to his pastors,
regularly refused to take Communion and was a Deist, many of the nation’s
founders professed religious beliefs that probably would be questioned by the
Pilgrims as well as many people today.
It was Jefferson, Seigenthaler said, who coined the metaphor “wall of
separation” to refer to the First Amendment’s religion clauses. While many
religious leaders point out that the phrase does not appear in the Constitution,
Seigenthaler said, the courts have relied heavily on Jefferson’s metaphor in
ruling in religious cases.
“What the court has made of Jefferson’s wall has now become a legal barrier,”
Seigenthaler said. “No constitutional freedom, not even that of religion, is
absolute. But if you look at what the courts have said, you know the wall is
difficult to get over or under or around or to tear down.”
As the courts’ interpretation of the First Amendment and the public’s
reaction to this interpretation demonstrate, the founders “stirred a pot of
trouble” with the 16 words of the amendment’s religious-liberty clauses,
Seigenthaler said. But through those words, they also laid the foundation for
the country to become the religiously diverse nation that it is today.
“What a different country we might have had if the Constitution had embraced
the majority religion of that day, Anglicanism … as an official doctrine of a
country whose religious diversity was expanding already exponentially,”
Seigenthaler said. “Under a universal state religion, would our land have been
such a compelling magnet, attracting diverse citizens from foreign shores?”
One issue threatening religious diversity in the United States today is the
treatment of Muslims in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks,
Seigenthaler said. After the attacks, many Muslims who were U.S. citizens “were
subjected to government arrest, inquiry, (and) persecution,” he said. Others
“who were not citizens were deported in secret hearings, without advice of
counsel (and with) no chance for judicial review.”
In the midst of this, Seigenthaler said, the country and its citizens must
make the First Amendment ring true today.
“Our country will not live up to its legacy of religious tolerance if we make
[Muslims] feel as Roger Williams once felt — persecuted,” he said. “There can be
no greater challenge to the freest country in the history of the world than
making the 16 words of the First Amendment meaningful for all.”