Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
That’s the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America. It’s kind of a big deal around here.
The trouble is, sometimes we forget the value and the importance of those core principles and ideas that allowed this nation to prosper for the last 200 years. And sometimes we forget that we don’t have these rights because a piece of paper in Washington D.C. says so. These rights are written down on that piece of paper because our nation is founded on the idea that people inherently deserve and possess these rights.
These memory lapses seem to come around every four years or so, like Leap Year’s Day. Strange, isn’t it?
Some atheists decided that they had a message for the two main political parties during all this buildup to the elections. These atheists want to make their case that religion doesn’t belong in politics and that the political parties should pursue ideas, not ideologies. You may agree or disagree, and you can be vocal about it. You have that right. It’s written down on that piece of paper.
The atheists used their money and resources to create billboards, and then sought advertising agencies willing to put up the images near the national conventions of both parties. There was no such agency in Florida. For whatever reason, none of them wanted to carry a controversial message about religion. They have that right. It’s also written down.
An agency in North Carolina was willing to put up the atheist organization’s message.
So these billboards were spotted in the last two weeks:
You might strongly disagree with the messages. (I do.) We have that right.
However, the billboards are now being pulled down, as a response to a reported flood of “vitriol, threats, and hate speech against our staff, volunteers, and Adams Outdoor Advertising,” according to Amanda Knief, managing director of American Atheists, quoted in a Fox News article.
And that’s where our rights cross the line.
When my free exercise of religion or speech threatens the safety of another person, then maybe I’ve missed the point of both my religion and my freedom.
I’ve said before, as a religious person, it’s reasonable to support everyone else’s right to express their religious views, even if–or especially if–those views differ from my own. As soon as we permit the government or the public to decide what is an acceptable religious view and what is not, then we are giving up the principle behind those rights written down in Washington.
It’s not my job just to make a case for my own faith and for my own freedom. It’s my job to make the case that everyone else should have the same freedom as me to express their point of view without fear of violent retribution from government or from their fellow citizens.
This all makes sense from the civic political perspective. I can’t go around threatening the free speech or free religion of others without expecting the same treatment. I can’t push for government to make laws that limit free speech or free religion (or lack of religion) for others without expecting that some day the same government might limit my freedoms.
It’s also sensible from the perspective of Jesus’ teachings. Do unto others as you’d have them do unto you, right? I’m not sure what my fellow believers are asking for “them” to do unto us, if we’re engaging in threats and vitriol just because some atheists don’t believe what we believe.
Newsflash: That’s kind of the point of atheism.
Of course, this is North Carolina, where religion and politics have clashed quite often in the past few months. North Carolina recently voted on an amendment to their state constitution prohibiting gay marriage, or defining marriage as one man and one woman, or however you want to put that.
North Carolina was also in the spotlight thanks to Pastor Charles Worley of “electric fence” fame, who suggested maybe we could lock “all the gays” behind an electric fence and let them die off. (To be fair, he did suggest dropping food and supplies into the fenced area so they could not starve to death… so, I mean, there’s the Christian compassion we were all hoping for, I guess.)
To be fair, everyone can say what they want about other religions, about atheism, about Democrats, about Republicans, about anyone who is “not like me.” As much as I may disagree with their speech, I defend the right of Americans to say what we want. We can shout down voices of ignorance and hate.
Threats of violence are not the way to do it.
To my fellow believers who have raged against those billboards: You want to do something useful with your anger?
Go prove them wrong.