James Madison, the fourth President of the United States, doesn’t get as much notoriety as, say, George Washington or Benjamin Franklin. But as one of the founding fathers and one of the biggest reasons the Bill of Rights came to be, one of the ways he can be under-appreciated is with respect to how strongly he felt to enshrining freedom of speech in our Constitution.
In an article that ran in “National Review” from last September, Jay Cost writes:
In Madison’s view, a free republic depends ultimately upon public opinion. A Constitution could divide power this way and that, but in the end it is the people, and only the people, who rule. And for the people to rule wisely, they have to be able to communicate with one another — freely, without fear of reprisal. Thus, freedom of speech and press were not, for Madison, merely God-given rights. They were preconditions for self-government.
Mr. Cost concludes his article by stating: “Madison’s commitment to free speech should serve as a reminder that, while people say things that we might find personally offensive, we should never wish the state to squash their right to do so. Our First Amendment freedoms combined — freedom of religion, of assembly and petition, of press and speech — give us the right to think what we like and say what we please. And if we the people are to govern ourselves, we must have these rights, even if they are misused by a minority.”
Madison was of course joined by the other founders. George Washington said: ““If men are to be precluded from offering their sentiments on a matter, which may involve the most serious and alarming consequences that can invite the consideration of mankind, reason is of no use to us; the freedom of speech may be taken away, and dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep, to the slaughter.”
I think this is more important than ever, because we live in a time where certain very vocal groups want to stifle speech. The State may be prevented from quashing speech – but some might take it upon themselves to do so. These tactics aren’t anything new; they have been used throughout history by various groups on the far left and far right. Some people preach tolerance but they don’t so much tolerate views contrary to their own.
I could not help but think of this when Sarah Sanders, the press secretary for President Trump, was asked to leave a restaurant because the owner found some of her views “immoral.” Let’s think about this for a minute. A couple (the reservation was made by her husband) and their friends make a reservation to dine out. They are not there for anything other than a simple meal. No political rally, no speech, just dinner as paying customers. As I read about this, I could not help but wonder are we really at the point where we are going to have Republican and Democratic Restaurants because we despise each other so much? Can we not find common ground where we can tolerate one another, disagree, but also engage in civil debate and arguing?
The point is this: no matter what your political view may be, as Americans, we should never pipe down just because it is politically incorrect or a contrarian view. The Church has teachings that would make people across the aisle uncomfortable. At the same time, we have to be civil with one another while not being afraid to argue, and not hate someone just because of their political viewpoints.
I think as we celebrate Independence Day with fireworks, barbecues, hot dogs and get togethers, it’s worth thinking about our freedom. Catholics were only marginally tolerated at best at the time of the Constitution, but throughout US History Catholics have spoken out on many matters, from Civil Rights to abortion to marriage. It is disheartening to see that there are some out there who are not just comfortable in disagreeing or looking for an argument, but looking for a true fight or resorting to scare tactics to either change others views or force them to conform. The Catholic Church will always hold views that are not politically popular. But we as both Catholics and Americans should never live in fear of being labeled or offending someone. So what are we to do?
I think a few things to remember are first to try to listen to the other person. We may not agree with them, and we may never agree on certain issues. But listening affirms the dignity of the person, and can give us insight into where they are coming from.
Next, I think it’s good to affirm a person, but we then formulate an argument – to say “I can understand where you are coming from, but here is why I feel so strongly on this.” Remember arguing is different from shouting or just attacking or abuse. (See the classic Monty Python “Argument Clinic” sketch for more detail on the differences). This is why we need catechesis, to know what the Church teaches and why. When are argue, we formulate opinions based on facts or premises. For instance if conversing with someone who said one religion is good as all or I don’t have to go to Mass, I’d start by thanking them for conversing with me, and that it seems they are looking for deeper meaning in life. I wouldn’t jump to “you have to go to Mass” but talk about something such as love – a need we all have, and how when we love someone we get to know them better, and how when we are loved we are made better. I might move on to talking about how Mass and prayer make us better people and help us on our life long journeys. My hope would be the conversation would continue, but it would require patience.
Patience is also important. It can be very frustrating when people reject teachings of the Church. But as we heard two weeks ago at Mass, the mustard seeds take time to grow – so don’t give up on people.
Lastly, tolerance is an important moral principle too. I can break bread with people from different political backgrounds. I can agree to disagree. And this is so very important for us not just as Americans but as humans. But while I will certainly tolerate a person, I will also not be fearful of never engaging them in dialogue or challenging them too. We are not called to keep our beliefs private behind the stained glass windows – we are called to bring them out into the world and to be a true evangelist.
So as we mark our country’s birthday this week, lets remember Madison and the founders were onto something very important, which is why the worked so hard to defend it. Ideas may offend, that’s a good thing, but an even better thing is getting someone to think rather than shout.
Happy Independence Day,