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Confusion Over the First Amendment

By       Message Robert Parry     Permalink
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The Founders also spoke and wrote frequently about the necessity of trading off some liberty for a functioning society. Contrary to the Right's founding myth, the Founders were not absolutists for liberty (beyond the obvious fact that many were slaveowners); they had read the works of political philosophers who recognized that civilization required some constraints on individual actions.

The Founders also were mostly practical men who wanted a vibrant and successful nation -- recognizing that only such a country could protect the independence that had just been won at a high price in blood and treasure. To make the Founders into caricatures of religious zealotry, who would place the dogma of any religion over the decisions of individual citizens, is a further distortion of what the leading framers were thinking at the time.

Some of Madison's key allies in the fight for the Constitution and later enactment of the Bill of Rights were Virginian Baptists who believed fiercely in the separation of church and state. Thus, the First Amendment begins by prohibiting establishment of an official religion before barring interference in religious practices. Nothing in the First Amendment says churches are exempt from civil law or that the government must help them impose their doctrines on citizens.

So, what is this coordinated attack on the federal government really all about? Clearly, the Right does not truly care about Americans having freedom of conscience on religious matters. Otherwise, we wouldn't be seeing all these attacks on women's access to contraception and abortion services. The Right has no compunction against intruding on the religious beliefs of those women.

Demonizing the New Deal

Which gets us to the key point about the orchestrated hostility toward any action by the U.S. government when its supports the welfare of the average American. What we are watching is a class war -- as billionaire Warren Buffett has rightly noted --and that the wealthy are winning. As part of that war, the wealthy and their operatives have developed what might be called a "united front" against government, with poorer Americans drawn in by the so-called "cultural issues."

The wealthy understand that in the absence of government intervention on behalf of common citizens, nearly all power would accrue to corporations and to the rich. The average American would become, at minimum, a second-class citizen with far fewer meaningful rights and, in some ways, a virtual slave to the powerful.

What many Americans seem to have forgotten is that the Great Middle Class wasn't a natural outgrowth of the nation's economic system; it was the creation of the federal government and especially the New Deal. After the Great Depression -- brought on largely by vast income inequality and rampant stock speculation -- President Franklin Roosevelt launched the New Deal, pitting the federal government against the titans of business.

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The New Deal's goal was to spread the wealth of the country more equitably by legalizing unions and investing public funds in building the nation, while simultaneously reining in reckless financial practices and restraining the power of the rich. Inevitably, that meant intruding on the "liberty" of the wealthy to do whatever they wanted. It meant allowing workers to engage in collective bargaining and to strike. It meant imposing higher taxes on the rich so the national infrastructure could be expanded and modernized.

Those efforts grew in the post-World War II era with veterans benefiting from the GI Bill to go to college and buy homes. And later, with projects like the Interstate Highway system, which sped goods to markets, and the Space Program, which spurred technological advances. Even more recently, the government-created Internet introduced dramatic growth in productivity.

These innovations generated great national wealth -- and combined with high marginal tax rates on the rich -- created a much more equitable society, both economically and politically. But many of the rich never accepted the social contract implicit in the New Deal, that all Americans should share in the nation's bounty and that a strong middle class was good for everyone, including fair-minded businessmen who benefited from larger markets for their products.

Instead, many rich Americans wanted to keep their money for themselves and to pass it on to their progeny, creating what would amount to an aristocracy, a class that would essentially own and govern America. Of course, they couldn't exactly express it that way; they had to dress up their greed in different clothing. After all, even the dumbest American wasn't likely to sign on to a program for restoring the Gilded Age under an unrestrained financial system that had led to the Great Depression.

The rich had to sell their new era of plutocratic dominance as a "populist movement," essentially as "liberty" from government. The national government, in particular, had to be transformed from the defender of the middle class and the promoter of a broad-based prosperity into an oppressor holding back "enterprise" and restricting "freedom."

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That required building a powerful propaganda megaphone with angry voices blaring out messages that exploited the frustrations of average Americans. Instead of blaming the rich for shipping jobs overseas and for eroding middle-class incomes, the villain had to become the "guv-mint." The answer had to be giving money and power back to corporations and their allies.

In some ways, the Blunt amendment fits into this pro-corporate philosophy (albeit with a religious twist of empowering the Catholic Church's hierarchy as well as company bosses with moral qualms). The GOP plan would have transferred even more power to employers over their employees' lives, down to their choices of medical services.

The Senate rejected the Blunt amendment, 51-48, but Republicans vowed to make it an issue in the presidential campaign.

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Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at It's also available at

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