Why The First Amendment Is the Best Amendment: Part 1

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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 is the first 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 One: The ‘Ancien Regime’ (Christendom)

Prior to 1776, there had never been a country which formally separated religion and state. The first kings in Egypt and Mesopotamia were even worshipped as deities. While it is true that the Greek and Roman polities on which the United States based its constitution were ruled by men who were frequently agnostic or dismissive of religion, the state was always deeply religious.

In Rome, the Temple of Mars was ritually opened in times of war, and Greek leaders flocked to the Oracle at Delphi to hear prophecies on things to come — both, at the very least, were outward signs of piety.

So how did we get from literally worshipping kings as living gods to enshrining in law that no religion can be part of the state?

Christianity first brought these revolutionary ideas to the fore when it came to dominate Europe. Perhaps because Christianity started out as a minority sect, it was wary of state power. In the gospel of Matthew and Mark, Jesus draws a distinction between religion and state saying, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” By contrast, in the Judaic Temple-state, the king and Sanhedrin (the highest court) ruled with divine favor, and the law they enforced was religiously mandated.

Christianity’s explicit distinction between religion and state was further enunciated by Pope Gelatius in a letter to the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius Augustus in 494. “There are two [powers], august Emperor, by which this world is chiefly ruled, namely, the sacred authority (auctoritas sacrata) of the priests and the royal power (regalis potestas),” the Pope wrote. “If the ministers of religion, recognizing the supremacy granted you from heaven in matters affecting the public order, obey your laws, lest otherwise they might obstruct the course of secular affairs by irrelevant considerations, with what readiness should you not yield them obedience to whom is assigned the dispensing of the sacred mysteries of religion?”

This division of labor between the lords temporal and lords spiritual (as they are called to this day in the British House of Lords) became known as the Two Swords Doctrine (temporal and spiritual) and was the foundation of relations between church and state under the “Ancien Regime.”

The church accepted the distinction, but regarded the spiritual sword as very much superior, even though the temporal sword, under the authority of kings and emperors, wielded most of the physical power in the world. This attitude reached its apogee when Pope Boniface VIII laid out this doctrine in his 1302 Papal Bull Unam Sanctum, which decreed “one sword ought to be subordinated to the other and temporal authority, subjected to spiritual power.”

He went still further, saying, “We declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.”

Power struggles between the temporal and spiritual swords led to several centuries of antagonism, including several instances of rulers installing or deposing popes. It also meant that whatever their relationship with the church, rulers still styled themselves as kings by divine right, and defenders of the church. In this vein, for example, the kings of Spain styled themselves as “Most Catholic Majesty,” following a grant from Pope Alexander VI.

The distinction meant struggles over power, yes, but it did not mean separation or freedom of conscience. Those who deviated from the acceptable state doctrine were frequently ruthlessly persecuted. One horrific example was the Albigensian Crusade, sent to root out the Cathar heresy in southern France. The crusade is most notable for Papal Legate Arnaud Amalric’s chilling instructions prior to the sack of Beziers in 1209 when asked how to distinguish heretics from Catholics: “Kill them all, God will recognize his own.”

Until the Reformation shattered the Catholic church’s hegemony, this set up  — one God, one church in an uneasy relationship with ambitious kings — ruled what was then called Christendom.


In Part Two we will explore the early relationship between religion and state in Islam. Click here to read Part 2




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Elliot Friedland

Elliot Friedland is a research fellow at Clarion Project.

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