My Green Room colleague Laura Curtis asked yesterday whether we should have the right to disobey Islamic law, and her post understandably got a lot of interest.
I would like to suggest that we need to pose the question a different way, because how we answer it will depend on how it is asked. I believe the correct question is: Do we have the right to disobey Islamic law?
That’s how the philosophers of America’s founding would have put the question. They saw rights not as things we “should” have, but as things we do have. These rights are unalienable, regardless of whether anyone else thinks we “should” have them. They are not up for debate. They are an endowment from God, and the limited set of unabrogable natural rights that inhere in each of us may not be breached by human governments or other human agency.
The list of rights in the Declaration of Independence is very short: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The Bill of Rights enumerates rights which may not be abridged, and specifies certain protections for the people (e.g., against unreasonable search and seizure and against self-incrimination in a court proceeding). The First and Second Amendments lay out clearly which rights the government of the United States may not infringe:
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.
A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
The Founders would have said that they crafted the First Amendment because men do, inherently and indisputably, have the right to free speech and the free practice of religion.
They did not exclude the possibility that state and local governments might place limits on speech, nor did they consider it inconsistent that several of the states had state-sponsored churches (denominations) at the time the Constitution was ratified. But the Founders’ concern was with limiting the federal government, and the chief counterweight they invoked to do that was the natural, God-given rights of men. They had a conscious idea of meaning in nationhood – the concept of a “national idea” that transcended the particular and detailed administration of civil life – and that national idea was of government so carefully limited as to guarantee but not infringe on the people’s rights.
America’s Founders had arrived at this idea of government through a philosophical evolution peculiar to the West. Judaism, secular philosophy, and Christianity all contributed to it. The Protestant idea of individual choice – individual response to God, individual salvation, the “priesthood of believers” referred to in 1 Peter 2:5-9 – became the culminating principle on which the Founders proposed to base a national government that did not regulate the people’s moral or spiritual lives. If each person has a moral choice of his own, so the thinking went – if each person stands before God as an individual, and chooses to accept or reject – then it is not the business of human government to interpose itself in that dynamic.
It is important to note here that the fundamental premise of the Founders, who were almost all Protestant Christians (but included Catholics and Jews), was different from the premise of globalist Islam. There had been a time in Western history when monarchs and would-be emperors conceived themselves to be warriors for God, advancing the Kingdom of Jesus Christ through the sword. The underlying assumption was that humans were to effect the universal acceptance of the gospel of Jesus Christ – an end-state against which the forces of evil constantly interposed themselves.
The rise of an armed, distinctive organization in the Christian West coincided with, and was in part prompted by, the armed expansion of Islam from the 7th to the 10th centuries. Islam was and remains a universalist creed, with a vision of an end-state in which all the world submits to Islamic unity (“submission” and “unity” being the typical translations of the word Islam in Western languages). But Christianity, through the great upheaval of the Protestant Reformation, and the Counterreformation of the Catholic Church which followed, detached itself over time from ideas of earthly empire and forcible expansion.
Christians today don’t conceive of the eschatological culmination laid out in Biblical prophecy as something they have to try to bring about – and certainly not through the means of the armed state. Whether Catholic or Protestant, Christians believe fundamentally that while the church is and should be a positive influence in the world, God’s relations with men are not brokered by the state. Rather, they must be respected by the state, must be honored as a positive influence in the people’s lives, and – from the standpoint of regulation or other law, and certainly from the standpoint of assessing religious doctrine – must be left alone.
These ideas underlie the quintessentially American view that government – and the national government in particular – must not seek to repress or punish speech about God. We are all going to say things others find offensive, whether it’s sophomoric atheists calling Christians “Christofascists” and mocking our “Sky God,” or Christian leaders proclaiming that God doesn’t hear the prayers of Jews, or Jews proclaiming that the Messiah hasn’t come yet – or, indeed, anyone of any faith (or none) saying that he doesn’t believe Mohammed was a prophet of God.
Restricting religious, philosophical, artistic, or intellectual speech is inherently a slippery slope. There is no way to do it safely. Today Islamic radicals may riot over ridicule of Mohammed, but it will not stop there. The day will come quickly when a Christian or Jew who simply rejects Mohammed as a prophet of God – however quietly or respectfully – will be considered to have defamed Mohammed and Islam. Yet faithful Christians and Jews must reject the Mohammed proposition. It cannot be accommodated in their relations with God.
The American Founders had the answer to this, an answer derived from centuries of learning, thinking, inspiration, and painful adjustment in the Judeo-Christian West. The answer is that human government does not broker or settle these issues. It punishes rioters, regardless of why they riot, and it protects the lives and rights of citizens with whom the rioters disagree.
Government may affirm what is obvious and true, such as that the United States is traditionally a Christian nation, or that Israel is and should be a Jewish state. Muslim nations are free to affirm their Islamic identity.
But the American way, based on centuries of the study of God, is to honor and protect above all the freedom of each individual to approach God as seems best to him, even if that means ridiculing (or simply rejecting) the religious beliefs of another. This is not a light or transient principle, something that should or must fold under pressure.
It is a unique way for religions and denominations to live in peace. It is the best thing the world has ever found, in terms of a political attitude toward religion and freedom of speech. It deliberately and specifically invokes the provision of God; it is not a secular idea. It is only in the last 30-40 years that Americans have lost their sense of that.
Our American idea is of a nation protecting the people’s most important God-given freedoms. Our idea is not transnational, globalist, or eschatological. Our idea thus acknowledges the limitations of human government and force, which cannot bring about anybody’s “kingdom of God.” I affirm that the American principle is true and right. We do inherently have the right to “disobey Islamic law.” We have the right to approach God as each of us individually sees fit, including rejecting the idea of Him. It is not our government’s job to tell some to be silent in order to satisfy others. It is our government’s job to protect our rights and keep the peace.
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