How Obama Gets Our First Principles Wrong
The First Amendment limits the federal government, not freelance morons.


Andrew C. McCarthy

To “burn the sacred texts of someone else’s religion is contrary to what this country stands for,” lectured Pres. Barack Obama at last week’s press conference. “It’s contrary to what this country — this nation — was founded on.”

It is always a precious sight when the president, a self-styled agent of “fundamental change” who is distinctly out of sympathy with the American founding philosophy, invokes our country’s first principles. True to form, Obama’s admonition is sweet sounding and wrong. In fact, American tradition would be transgressed by government’s burning of sacred texts — or, analogously, by government’s demanding that a religious community bring its creed into conformity with current ruling-class pieties (sound familiar?).

It is the very notion of the central government’s involvement in religious matters that runs afoul of our founding principles. To the contrary, our tradition has always relied upon the private examination and criticism of religious belief systems. It would have been unseemly for Terry Jones, the obscure pastor of a microscopic Florida flock, to stage his Koran-torching exhibition. But such a display would plainly have been protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech and would have been within our norms, which respect religious belief but do not hold it immune from examination — the same norms that call on Christians to grit their teeth and bear such desecrations as Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ.”

Reasoned examination is far more basic to what this country stands for than is any trumped-up standard against defiling religious texts. The most trenchant argument against Jones was to be found in this American tradition of private criticism: The Christian pastor’s plan was un-Christian, not un-American. It crossed the line from the socially tolerable berating of a competing doctrine into the intentional insulting of Muslims. It defied common sense, which says that even if we are not responsible for the tinderbox Islamists have made of our world, we shouldn’t — absent good reason — give them a pretext to riot and kill.

Freedom means allowing stupid people to do stupid but legal things without government interference. Self-determination means having faith in the capability of free people to dissuade bad behavior and, if they can’t prevent it, to contain it, or even rise above it in a way that underscores the value of freedom.

It is an oft-repeated and quite valid complaint of Americans that most Muslims are unwilling to offer full-throated, unconditional, unambiguous condemnation of terrorism. There is a reason for their reluctance: They are not free. Sharia, the authoritarian system of Islamic law that Muslims are expected to follow, severely discourages Muslims from sowing discord within their community. Rank-and-file Muslims are consequently inhibited in expressing dissent when jihadists portray themselves as “fighting in Allah’s cause” — a condition aggravated by the penchant of Muslim community leaders to blame atrocities not on the jihadists but on American policies that purportedly “humiliate” the jihadists into acting. Even if ordinary Muslims are repulsed by the terrorists, sharia and its executors intimidate them into silence.

Contrast the Muslim world’s reaction to terrorist bloodbaths with the U.S. reaction to the Reverend Jones and his offensive, but certainly far short of murderous, publicity stunt. Could members of our body politic, from those of high profile to the most average Americans, have tripped over themselves any faster to condemn Jones? It was a moment to be proud of. And it required no government and no finger-wagging commander-in-chief to show us the way. Americans freely elect a government to reflect what we think, not to tell us what to think.


Sign up for free NRO e-mails today:

NRO Polls on LockerDome

Subscribe to National Review