How the First Amendment Made us Different from Other Nations

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The First Amendment to the Constitution forbids “the establishment of religion”.

Such “establishment” was common in 18th century Europe. The “established” faith was the one the sovereign had chosen, and was therefore favored and supported by the state. Other religions or denominations were, at worst, severely persecuted; and, at best, given second class status.

 

In return for state support and protection, the hierarchy and members of the established faith in turn backed the state – and provided spiritual sanction for its policies. Citizens had to obey the state under pain of both temporal punishment and spiritual condemnation.

Such partiality and control are explicitly banned by the First Amendment. Any restrictions on the communication of thought and opinion – religious or otherwise – are likewise forbidden.

The result of this affirmation of the freedom of thought is that no American citizen or party can legally impose its opinion on other citizens or groups. In case of disagreement no ultimate authority, such as a bishop or king, can adjudicate between citizens. They will either freely come to a common ground, or remain in disagreement.

America can therefore only be ruled by a consensus of citizens, in common agreement over goals and means.  This is not the same as compromise, or the abandonment of principle for the sake of cooperation. Consensus, by contrast, is the search for, and achievement of common ground. It means the setting aside of areas where we differ in favor of those where our interests overlap.

Consensus is liberating because it leads to the development of new methods to achieve common goals. Once established in one area it will spill over into others because of the benefits such cooperation provides to participating parties. Whereas forced uniformity is restrictive, consensus is liberating. The search for agreement based on shared interest is dynamic, looking for ever new combinations of ideas, talents, and solutions.

Thus self government by consensus is at the basis of the American ability to organize, innovate – and achieve extraordinary results – in pursuit of an ever-changing set of common goals. It is creative, adaptive and future-oriented.

Such government has worked over most of American history, but there were times where the search for consensus broke down. The signal case was the Civil War, in which both sides abandoned consensus for the sake of holding extreme positions. This not only resulted in the death of over six hundred thousand men, but left social and political damage that took a century to repair.

Another case was provided by the Great Depression, during which the government and business took extreme ideological positions which precluded mutual understanding and cooperation. It took the threat of defeat in war to bring us back to our senses and understand that national unity was essential for survival. The result was extraordinary: not only total victory, but also the highest economic growth numbers ever achieved.

We are today faced with a similar choice, again in the midst of crisis. Both political parties are dominated by the rigid ideas of their more extreme members. Their goal is to defeat a political enemy rather than to cooperate with a fellow citizen. With the nation fairly evenly split this can only lead to gridlock and/or further conflict.

We have seen this mentality at work in the budget and national debt debates of the last two years. Both sides took “positions of principle” – meaning that they were absolutely right and the opponents completely wrong. Opponents were vilified but no workable solution was brought to the table. The only “agreement” was to fight another battle in January – with the problems having grown bigger and still no solution in sight.

Benefit of this approach to the nation: zero; problems solved: none; loss of U.S. global prestige and authority: considerable.

If we are to improve the internal situation of the country and regain international respect, we need to return to the American tradition of working by consensus.


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