Published Humanitas, Summer 1987

The First Amendment has been explored at great length by legal, constitutional, and jurisprudential scholars. Despite the voluminous nature of the research, critical clarification of this constitutional clause has been hampered by a failure on the part of many commentators to penetrate to principle. Underlying the various legal positions on freedom of speech and the role of religion in public life are various ideas and sentiments with traceable lines of meaning which extend back over the centuries. This paper will attempt to transcend the practical, prudential, and legal questions surrounding the First Amendment by extrapolating the general philosophies which motivate the various legal positions.

The two greatest theoretical influences upon interpretations of the First Amendment are found in the older tradition of British common law and constitutionalism and the newer currents of thought brought on by the Enlightenment. Both intellectual traditions could support the existence of a Bill of Rights. Both traditions could agree on some kind of separation of church and state as well as a “right” to freedom of speech and the press. This agreement over wording, however, was not an agreement in principle. The two traditions embodied fundamentally incompatible views on the nature of man and the purpose of government. Owing to the pressing necessities of political events, however…

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