Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Real--and unreal--threats to the First Amendment

The newspapers are full of a fair amount of hand-wringing over a First Amendment Center poll finding that almost two-thirds of Americans "believe that the nation's founders intended the U.S. to be a Christian nation and 55% believe that the Constitution establishes a Christian nation." That the belief is ill-founded should be apparent to anybody who knows American history. Many of the founders were deists, who believed in the concept of a "creator," but didn't believe that the creator involved itself in human life and generally rejected the trappings of organized religion--including those of Christianity. There's no evidence that the founders sought to mold their new country along the lines of religious views that they didn't share.

But even though I think that a majority of Americans are wrong about their country's religious identity, I'm not convinced that I should fret more about their theological failings than I do about their overall historical ignorance. For starters, the term "Christian nation" is vague as hell. It could mean anything from a general adherence to Judaeo-Christian values (a position that wouldn't offend even my atheistic heart) to outright endorsement of theocracy and subjugation of non-believers--that covers a lot of ground. A better idea of how many poll respondents actually want to lock church and state in a close embrace lies in the 28% that want to deny religious liberty to those deemed "extreme or on the fringe."

The folks who make up that 28% are scary, but they're a far cry from two-thirds of the population.

More troubling to me--though less ballyhooed in the media--are the large numbers of Americans in the poll who apparently favor choking off private support of political campaigns.

The survey also found that 71% of Americans would limit the amount a corporation or union could contribute to a political campaign, with 64% favoring such a limit on individual contributions. Sixty-two percent would limit the amount a person could contribute to his or her own campaign.

Solid majorities of Americans apparently have no problem with letting politicians throttle off the flow of money from Americans to the activists and candidates who represent their views. That's a lot of power to hand to officials who have a personal interest in wielding such authority. We've had experience with so-called "campaign finance reform" in recent years, and the result has been to increasingly turn politicking into a specialized field reserved to well-connected experts.

It's become legally perilous to advocate for or against candidates and ballot initiatives. Spend the wrong money, in the wrong way, or at the wrong time, and you may face crippling fines. It's safer to just keep your mouth shut--and let the politicians slip just a little further out of control.

I certainly don't want to live in the worst-case version of a "Christian nation," but in the modern world, state-controlled political speech is more of a threat than the specter of theocracy.

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