Recently I’ve been reading through the excellent, scholarly papers presented this summer at the annual meeting of the Baptist History & Heritage Society and assembled in their Summer/Fall 2008 edition of the Baptist History & Heritage journal.
The topic was “Baptists and the First Amendment.” In one article, Bruce Gourley, the online editor for Baptists Today among other jobs, engages the contemporary challenges found at the intersection of free speech and the Internet.
Other than that one paper on free speech, the remaining good articles seem to suggest that the First Amendment is exclusively about religious liberty. Passion for religious liberty runs high among my crowd of Baptists — and I am as committed to that great cause as anyone else.
However, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution reads: “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 value of religious liberty is not diminished by recognizing the importance of the other freedoms addressed in the First Amendment. In fact, a free press is one of the best means of ensuring free religious expression.
Aside from Bruce’s paper on the Internet and free speech, the remaining papers dealt almost exclusively with the issue of religious liberty.
Mercer University President Bill Underwood noted the “six separate but related freedoms” and Baylor historian Doug Weaver quoted legendary Baptist George W. Truett stating, “A free press should not be censured by the Sultan, nor sizzled by the Czar.”
But that was it. My concern is not that too much attention is being given to the great cause of preserving religious liberty. That would be impossible.
My concern is that the First Amendment is being exclusively associated with religious freedom. A conference and publication titled “Baptists and the First Amendment” should have something more substantial to say about a free press than a couple of lines.
Don’t misread me: I am not picking on the BH&HS or the presenters (these are my trusted friends) — and I am not downplaying the importance of religious liberty (Support the Baptist Joint Committee as I do!).
This is just a simple reminder that while religious liberty may be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — it should not be the only thing.
Freedoms of speech, assembly, petition and an unencumbered press deserve our attention and passion as well. Censorship that robs the public of unvarnished truth is an ugly thing.