Why The First Amendment Is the Best Amendment: Part 3

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(Photo: Nick Youngson/Alpha Stock Images)
(Photo: Nick Youngson/Alpha Stock Images)

“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 of the United States Constitution.

The struggle against Islamism can be summarized as a struggle over whether or not the First Amendment is a good idea. The First Amendment enshrines freedom of religion and conscience as a matter of law. By contrast, Islamism is about control: over thought and deed.

But to understand how this conflict came about, we have to backup a little bit.

This article is the third in a eight-part series explaining how and why the First Amendment came about, why it never developed Islamic countries and why Islamists oppose the principle today.


Part Three: The Reformation

From the last article’s appraisal of the early caliphates, we now return to Europe. There, the ancient certainties of the medieval order were shattered as the continent entered the early modern period, completely changing the relationship between religion and state. This occurred for many reasons, but three factors stand out as the most influential.

The first development was the printing press. Goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg modified and adapted existing printing techniques to create the world’s first mechanical printing press. In 1455, his edition of the Bible became the first mass-produced book in world history. The new invention enabled the spread of ideas rapidly throughout Europe, building and educating a literate class and giving them the tools to question existing wisdom. Most of the early books produced by the first printing presses were religious in nature.

The second development was the musket. First used to effect on the battle of Cerignola in Southern Italy in 1503, the musket soon had a decisive impact both on battlefields and the social order. Unlike longbowmen and crossbowmen, musketmen were easy and cheap to train and equip. You could take any able bodied man from a town and have them deployed to the battlefield in a few short weeks.

Knights had hitherto dominated the battlefields of Europe, based on their effectiveness as mounted shock troops. Yet these skills were acquired through years of hard training, coupled with extremely expensive equipment. This ensured that political power remained in the hands of the wealthy, since they were the ones who could dominate in battle and decide the course of wars.

With the introduction of firearms, suddenly masses of cheap infantry were able to blow away the armored knights, no matter their training or pedigree. Coupled with cannons that took down the defensive power of castle walls, these military developments eroded then eradicated the power of the aristocracy on the battlefield. In 1717, the French introduced their first standard-issue, line infantry musket, finalizing the transition.

The third development, and perhaps the most important, was the Reformation. In 1517, the professor of theology at Wittenberg University, Martin Luther, nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, protesting the excesses of the Catholic Church. The particular trigger event was a scandal involving the Archbishop of Mainz purchasing his office from the pope with a huge bribe, and then selling “indulgences,” i.e., absolution for sins, to the poor in order to make the money back.

Luther’s radical idea was that the salvation of man came from faith, rather than from the church. But his other major, perhaps even more radical idea, was that people could interpret scripture for themselves. Obviously the Catholic Church could not put up with such dangerous and destabilizing notions, so they moved to shut him down as quickly as they could. Nevertheless, Luther’s teachings spread rapidly, and after he was excommunicated by the Pope, he formed his own sect, the first Protestant branches of Christianity.

Many of the leading princes and nobles of Europe switched to Luther’s conception of Christianity. In the areas they ruled, they seized church lands and forcibly converted the population to Lutheran forms of Christianity. The Catholic church, in response, united the faithful and waged an all out war to attempt to crush it.

The ensuing violence tore Europe apart. Many different wars were waged, sometimes simultaneously. Various princelings took the opportunity to try and enrich themselves at the expense of their neighbors, further complicating the situation. Proportionally, the wars were deadlier than either World War II or the Black Death.

Plague, famine and devastation wracked the continent as armies raped, pillaged, burned and slaughtered their way through the Holy Roman Empire. The Imperial General Wallenstein became so crazed and traumatized by the violence that he ordered all cockerels, dogs and cats killed in every town he arrived in, so sensitive had he become to noise.

The wars would not have been as widespread nor as devastating without the combination of all three of these factors. However, military technology improvements, the easy dissemination of knowledge and revolutionary ideas directed at the corrupt church proved to be a toxic combination.

The details of the wars are too complex and numerous to discuss adequately here. What is important is how the wars ended, which was in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia. This vast peace conference took four years to negotiate and involved 192 states, ranging from the Holy Roman Empire, France, Sweden and Spain to tiny principalities and Free Imperial Cities such as Aachen. For the first six months, the delegates could not begin negotiating because they were arguing about the correct protocol for who should sit where.

Yet, after fours years, they finally they agreed. The treaty reaffirmed the principle agreed upon in the 1555 Peace of Augsburg: cuius regio, eius religio (whose realm, his religion). The principle upheld that each ruler would be free to determine religious affairs within their own borders, and that transnational organizations, such as the Catholic Church would not be allowed to interfere.

That meant that in Protestant states, Catholics suffered discrimination, while in Catholic states, Protestants were penalized. However, within each realm, certain minority faiths were given protections as recognized sects. Over the years, restrictions were gradually eased, the precursor to the religious freedom that Europeans enjoy today.

The compromise was an enormous step forward at the time. Instead of one universal church, with deviant monarchs facing excommunication, each state now had its own sovereign power. The Treaty of Westphalia is regarded as a watershed moment in the creation of the modern nation-state.

The doctrines of sovereignty created by the Treaty of Westphalia has been steadily undermined in our time, both by human rights organizations/movements seeking to apply universal standards of religious liberty and freedoms as well as by Islamist organizations who fight for  the implementation of religion in the state in a number of different countries at once, paying no heed to national borders.


In the Part 4, we will focus on the development on the Islamic world from the early caliphate period and what happened after the ummah fragmented politically. Click here to read Part 4.



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Elliot Friedland

Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.