The First Amendment is first, not simply because it falls at the beginning of a list of amendments, but because it articulates the first freedom and the nature of that freedom. It guarantees the freedom essential to humans as rational beings.
By connecting the freedom of religion with the freedom of speech, the First Amendment gets to the essence of what it is to be a human — for it is self-evident that we are thinking beings. We use reason to form thoughts, and we think in order to make sense of, or give meaning to, our experiences in light of our basic beliefs.
Our most basic beliefs answer the most basic questions that can logically be asked. These include beliefs about authority, existence and value. Because of how these beliefs shape the rest of our worldview, and because of their relationship to our search for meaning, they are identified as our religious beliefs.
To be concerned for thinking, reason and meaning is to be concerned for common ground in human civilization.
The historical circumstances of the First Amendment might include the background of the European Wars of Religion and the role of the Church of England in the British government. However, philosophically, it is about what is needed for humans as rational beings to prosper.
After the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 ended the religious wars, an increased but still limited freedom of religion was enforced.
Today, the First Amendment protects against coercion in matters of religious belief and practice. This is because coercion is contrary to the nature of belief and thought.
Although a person can in some measure be coerced into outward conformity, it is impossible to impose a change of belief through external laws. At best, it makes a person agree until the threat of force is removed.
In beliefs about the basic questions, any attempt to impose agreement without understanding is contrary to the nature of thought. There is a natural liberty of thought that is, in the words of the Declaration, inalienable.
This is why only rational beings can have freedom of thought and action. The freedom to make choices only comes from thinking about what is valuable and making a judgment. This kind of rational freedom is found when a person understands and acts to achieve some goal. In this sense, the First Amendment protects the essence of human nature as thinking beings, and any attempt to limit this freedom is an attack on human dignity.
The freedom of thought and the search for meaning are essential to the freedom of speech. Our religious beliefs are about what is real, and what is real is public. Similarly, speech is public as the expression of beliefs about what is real and valuable. Any attempt to limit speech is also an attempt to limit thought.
Our freedom to think and pursue meaning involves our need to publicly deliberate about our beliefs and especially in those areas where we remain divided. And this is why the First Amendment remains the first in importance.
We continue to be divided and have disagreements about our most basic beliefs. This Amendment not only gives us the freedom to believe and practice our particular religions, but also the freedom to discuss and debate over these differences. The more we understand the role of basic beliefs in how we interpret experiences, both individually and collectively, the more we will see why agreement is important. It is as thinking beings that we can begin to increasingly realize the goal of “E pluribus unum.”
• Owen Anderson, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the New College at Arizona State University, where he teaches courses in philosophy and religious studies. He has been a fellow of the James Madison Program at Princeton University and is the author of “The Declaration of Independence and God: Self-Evident Truths in American Law” (Cambridge University Press, 2015).