“No provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of civil authority.” –Thomas Jefferson
“The First Amendment protects the most essential rights necessary for the exercise of self-governance,” GPF International President James Flynn told a gathering of faith and civic leaders from 11 states in Virginia on October 27, 2015. “To be a free people, we need to exercise those rights and responsibilities, or our rights will erode. We need to structure a movement to protect our First Amendment freedoms.”
Hosted by Global Peace Foundation USA, the meeting brought together clergy, scholars, and representatives from business, military, government, media, volunteer organizations, and the arts. The participants sought to examine First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom and free debate, and the threats presented by an increasingly secular society to faith perspectives in public life.
“We are here to talk about how to move America forward,” said Dr. Paul Murry, co-chairman of the Coalition for American Renewal. “People look to politicians for answers, but the answers need to come from us, the people, united by a common vision, strong convictions and values.”
“We have to ask ourselves, not from a political standpoint but from a cultural standpoint,” said Dean Nelson, Co-Founder, Frederick Douglass Foundation, “how important are our First Amendment liberties, and what are we willing to do to affirm those in the public square?”
According to a recent Rasmussen poll, only 20 percent of Americans think they have true freedom of speech today.
The two-day gathering sought the support and insight of the participants toward the launching of a public campaign to raise awareness of First Amendment freedoms and the need for respectful dialogue on contentious social and political issues.
During open floor introductions, Murry asked each participant to respond to two questions: “Is it possible for the nation to live up to its founding ideals?” And “What is the biggest challenge we face?”
Responding in turn, participants agreed that the founding ideals were certainly possible to attain, but cited challenges such as the weakening of the family structure, corrosive and degrading popular culture, political partisanship, media bias, cultural conflict, and lack of commitment to personal ideals.
Bishop Joey Johnson, an Akron, Ohio pastor and civic leader, cited the limitations inherent in the founding of the new nation and the contradiction between the eloquent ideals and the realities of slavery and discrimination against women and Native Americans.
Later in his remarks, Flynn acknowledged what Condoleezza Rice has called America’s “birth defect” of slavery, and stressed that the American ideal is “a work in progress.” He said that what it means to be American is to be committed to the guiding principles and values that gave definition to the nation, the “self-evident truths that are not the purview of only one religion or of any one particular viewpoint, but are truths that are universal and are the starting point of our American experiment.
“America is at a significant crossroads,” Flynn stated. “Institutions that have provided stability within the human experience for a millennia are changing within a decade and are doing so without the needed appraisal of the potential longer term consequences to society. Without a consensus on values we create a society with uncertainty about what constitutes right and wrong.”
Quoting Benjamin Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and a member of the Continental Congress, Flynn said, “The only foundation for a republic is to be laid in religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.”
First Amendment freedoms
GPF USA President Alan Inman cited another founder, Thomas Jefferson, who wrote, “No provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of civil authority.”
Freedom of speech and of conscience have been a bedrock American value, yet according to a recent Rasmussen poll, only 20 percent of Americans think they have true freedom of speech today. Seventy-three percent think instead that Americans have to be careful not to say something politically incorrect to avoid getting in trouble.
“Because you are here,” Inman said, “I believe you are aware that our country is dangerously off course. There is a crisis of values in our inner cities that is rarely acknowledged but is devastating our communities. We believe that there can be a true consensus on values where children will have hope for tomorrow, but the time to act is now.”
Leading the meeting into breakout discussions, Dr. Murray and Mr. Nelson presented examples of faith and First Amendment freedoms being threatened in American society today in the workplace, the media, college campuses and political debate. The stifling of free exchange and discussion, bitter acrimony, and lack of basic civility were contrary to the ideals of the nation’s founding charter, they said, and required a reappraisal of the legitimacy of faith perspectives in the public square.
Following group discussions, representatives presented proposals on action steps to establish a First Amendment coalition to advance awareness of First Amendment protections through media, legislative, and grassroots initiatives.