Five truths for navigating our First Amendment crisis

America is the world’s most successful experiment in liberal polity. By liberal I mean the best ideas about human freedom to flow from the European Enlightenment, as well as the earlier Catholic and Reformation traditions.

It’s a mixed bag, certainly. But I’ll take it.

Many won’t, and their number is increasing. In 2013, for instance, a third of Americans said First Amendment protections—freedom of religion, speech, assembly, press, and petition—are too extensive, a triple increase from 2012.

We like freedom for ourselves, but we’re not so sure about anyone else. And of course that’s not exactly true. Some are very sure: They want everyone who doesn’t share their views to shut up, or else.

Our new blasphemy laws

There are several areas of public life where these freedoms are already cramped and getting worse. America’s universities, where half of students favor speech codes, are in meltdown right now.

Professors and administrators are afraid; some are pressured to resign. Journalists are barred from covering student protests.

If there were any doubts about whether blasphemy laws exist in America, ask those on the “wrong” side of issues like sexuality, gender, or the environment. A quarter of Democrats actually favor prosecuting those who disagree on climate change. And we’ve already seen reprisals for violating the new sexual orthodoxy, ranging from public shaming to forced ousters and legal sanctions.

Five truths to remember

Given this reality, it’s worth rehearsing a few truths that can help us navigate our current hostile environment.

1. Agreement is not an entitlement. It will shock some, but the world is full of individuals with their own minds and opinions, well formed or otherwise. To win those minds takes persuasion. Money, good looks, and flattery might also help, but the point is that nobody can simply demand and expect agreement with their positions. It must somehow be earned.

2. Volume is not validity. Whether in yelling or in mobs, increasing the volume does not validate an opinion. Pressure is not proof. In fact, ever-increasing volume is fair indicator of fanaticism, not reason.

3. Tolerance is a partial virtue. Tolerance means putting up with things one doesn’t like. But unless tolerance is balanced with some humility and deference, it flips to its opposite. Instead of making room for different views, it offers pretext for bullying others into accepting one’s own. Those demanding tolerance are usually the last and least to demonstrate it.

4. Reserving judgment is not a sin. Feeling forced to make up our minds on a subject is a good sign something is wrong. No one has the right to compel or coerce another to take any side on any issue. It is part of the inherent dignity of every human person to make up his or her own mind on any matter—or not. Anytime we feel forced, we should throw a flag on the play.

5. Resistance is not futile. To resist intolerance is both reasonable and sometimes required. That doesn’t mean we fight every battle. Some hills are worth dying on, others not. But if only for our own sanity, we must object—even if it is only within the province of our own souls.

Men will go mad

These are unsettling times to be sure. These five truths were once assumed by most of us. Clearly no longer. I’m reminded of Anthony the Great’s warning, spoken almost seventeen hundred years ago in the Egyptian desert:

A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him, saying, “You are mad; you are not like us.”

That time is now. What all this probably says is that our grand liberal experiment is over. If not actually over, it’s facing one of its severest tests.

Image credit: Alternative Libertaire.


  1. Hrm.

    The linked poll asked about age, race and “political identity”, but didn’t provide the quite-interesting break-down tables for the earlier questions.

    Quite disappointing, as it’s when you break down the answers by demographics you get the most interesting data.

    That said, I’d also like to point out 31% of respondents didn’t think the First Amendment applied to everyone (a call I’ve only ever heard from conservative talking heads) and 51% think the constitution establishes the US as a Christian nation.

    So yeah, there are people out there that don’t actually agree with the First Amendment. And it looks like a large chunk are Christians who think “liberty for me, not for you”.

  2. ” What all this probably says is that our grand liberal experiment is over.”

    Liberty’s foundation (or rather a necessary part of said foundation), limited government, did not survive the civil war. This means that the experiment was never actually “actualized” in the first place.

    Not that it actually matters that much for Christians, as we understand that the world is actually “getting worse” and ends in destruction – we look for a New Creation and a New Earth…

  3. Dear Joel,

    Reading your article made me reflect on some of my experiences within a large secular public university in California. In my graduate studies at this university, I came to find that it attracted a certain “type” of student and professor. These liberal-progressives (self-reported) claim that they are “open-minded”, but are in fact hostile and adverse to any opinion, belief, or view that is not their own. How do they display some of this behavior? One, professors use propaganda in the form of articles and videos which support their OWN point of view, rather than offering a balanced perspective on an issue (e.g physician-assisted-suicide). This is not only academically unethical, but does a great disservice to the education of students and the country’s future leaders. Second, both professors and other students “gang-up” on those who do not adhere to their views, displaying disrespectful and hostile behavior through their tone of voice, remarks, and a type of “ostracism” where the student with the “minority-view” is made to feel incompetent, inferior, “back-ward”, disloyal, and is therefore not part of the “team”. Third, from my own experience, it is evident( now more than ever) that if a student (even an intelligent, promising one) does not adhere to the majority opinion espoused by the professor or academic department, there are severe ramifications (e.g. scholarships don’t get awarded, recommendations are not made, guidance is not given). These actions, severely handicap a student’s education and future employment prospects. Therefore, whenever I here the statement “be more open-minded” I cringe, because I have found that what people who say this are really saying is, “think the way I want you think.” This is any thing but open-minded.

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