Rand Paul’s New Take on the First Amendment

by | May 8, 2015 | Elections

In a consistently free society, government protects freedom of religion and freedom from religion — simultaneously.
Gage Skidmore [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Gage Skidmore [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Republican senator Rand Paul, who currently represents Kentucky and is a presidential candidate for the upcoming 2016 elections, told religious leaders during a private prayer breakfast recently that the First Amendment does not say religion has to be kept out of governance.

“The First Amendment says keep government out of religion. It doesn’t say keep religion out of government,” Paul said. [Source: theblaze.com 3/30/15]

I have heard similar quotes before, along the lines of, “The meaning of a free society is freedom of religion, not freedom from religion.”

This is exactly wrong. Let’s revisit the words of 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.

If you stop reading the First Amendment after the first sixteen words, Paul’s comments might seem minimally plausible. But the rest of the First Amendment goes on to say that Congress may not abridge freedom of speech or the press. This means that no entity — religious or otherwise — may utilize the force of Congress (or government) to impose restrictions or restraints on freedom of speech or the press.

This is important. Freedom of speech is what most authoritarians (religious or secular) are after. Consequently, the First Amendment ensures the separation of church and state — and explicitly keeps religion out of the government, in a very explicit and absolute way.

In a consistently free society, government protects freedom of religion and freedom from religion — simultaneously. This means that you’re free to believe in and practice any religion you wish, so long as you do not commit acts of force or fraud against others. The inability to initiate force rules out imposing your religion on anybody, to any degree, at any time.

According to the story at theblaze.com, Rand Paul went on to say that since the U.S. Senate opens each day with an invocation, it is only obvious how there is a place for prayer in governance.

Compared to the damage that a bad government is capable of doing to free speech and other individual rights, members of Congress opening the day with a prayer is a minor infraction, if one at all. Whatever one’s position on members of Congress willingly engaging in public prayer, it provides no basis for going so far as to say that the Constitution makes no attempt to keep religion out of government.

Paul is widely considered a “libertarian.” This illustrates one of the problems with the concept of “libertarian.” What exactly is a libertarian? In one case it’s someone who would not even favor Congress having public prayer at all; in another case it’s using the excuse of Congress engaging in prayer as a justification (intended or not) for giving religion widespread and unspecified powers over individuals.

We don’t need a President who’s “libertarian,” particularly since that term has little or no meaning. We do need a President, and an entire government, committed exclusively to the preservation of individual rights. Individual rights consist of removing the imposition of force (including fraud) from the lives of citizens. That’s more than enough for any government to handle; and it’s everything.

Paul is entirely correct if he means that religious people should be free to practice and believe whatever they wish — provided they do not impose any force on peaceful citizens. Under a system of church-state separation, religious people benefit just as much as nonreligious persons. While they are unable to impose their will on citizens who don’t agree with them on religious matters, those other citizens are equally unable to impose their will on religious people. It’s the only fair and peaceful system man has ever devised, or ever could devise, for addressing the conflicts inherent in philosophical or spiritual differences. It’s all embodied in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

“The moral crisis we have in our country — there is a role for us trying to figure out things like marriage,” Rand Paul also said. “There’s also a moral crisis that allows people to think that there would be some sort of other marriage … really there’s a role outside and inside government, but I think the exhortation to try to change peoples’ thoughts also has to come from the countryside, from everywhere outside of Washington.”

These words are too vague and intellectually fuzzy to consider rationally. However, Paul seems to be suggesting, among other things, that people’s thoughts and ideas about matters such as gay marriage should rest on rational or voluntary persuasion. Morally and ethically, this is true. Perhaps the deeper question is what role government should have in defining “marriage” at all. Government should certainly uphold legally binding contracts between or among any willing adult participants. But why should government have the final say on defining marriage at all — whether as man-woman, man-man, woman-woman, or anything else? In a free society, government should simply back up contracts. Citizens can determine for themselves what they consider, or do not consider, marriage, and call their associations whatever they please.

One of the many problems with today’s society and government is that we’re constantly fighting over who gets the final say on ethics and morality. Never questioned is the premise that government should be in the morality business at all. The leftist progressives want their will (“man is his brother’s keeper”) made into law; and their opponents in the Republican Party seek to wrestle control back to their side (faith-based government, and the like). Why not get government the hell out of morality all together? Government should be strictly non-denominational, focused exclusively on protecting individual rights.

It is true that freedom must rest on a moral code; any system of government implies a certain approach to morality. But the moral code of a proper government is individual rationality, which includes the self-responsibility of thinking for oneself and accepting the consequences for one’s own actions. Government does not need to devise a moral code, and no government could ever hope to impose one on people mentally or psychologically.

Government should remain a police force and court system with the sole purpose of protecting individual rights. The only legitimate use of force by a government is the exercise of authority to force people to leave one another alone. A proper and rational, secular moral code implies that individuals must be free of coercion in order to exercise their minds in a rational and self-responsible way. If they choose to believe in religious parables or ideas, this is certainly their choice. Government need not, and should not, have anything to say about such beliefs or choices. Government should neither foster nor discourage them.

Based on some of his statements, it’s not clear that Rand Paul is much more committed to proper boundaries between the individual and the state than the typical politician running for office today.

Dr. Michael Hurd is a psychotherapist, columnist and author of "Bad Therapy, Good Therapy (And How to Tell the Difference)" and "Grow Up America!" Visit his website at: www.DrHurd.com.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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