To state what should be obvious but is apparently not, liberties -- even those cited in the Bill of Rights -- are not absolute and indeed many liberties that Americans hold dear are inherently in contradiction. Since the nation's founding, it has been a key role of government to seek out acceptable balances in this competition of interests.
For instance, the Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of speech, but
not to cry "Fire!" in a crowded theater. The press is protected, but
that does not mean that newspapers can do whatever they want. If they
print malicious lies against a citizen, they can be subject to libel
laws -- because it is accepted that people also need some protection
against losing their reputations unfairly.
Similarly, you can make the claim that the Second Amendment gives you the right to have a gun for self-protection, but you'd be on a lot shakier ground if you insisted that your "right to bear arms" justified your possession of a surface-to-air missile or a tactical nuclear bomb. Then, the competing right of others in society to expect a reasonable level of safety would trump your weapons right.
Churches, too, were afforded broad protections under the Bill of Rights, but they still must abide by civil laws. For instance, a religion that practices pedophilia or polygamy or fundraising fraud cannot simply assert a blanket right under the First Amendment to do whatever it wants.
Yet, today we're being told by the Right that religious liberty is boundless and that any moral or religious objection by an employer against giving an employee some specific health benefit trumps the employee's right to get that medical service. In other words, the religious freedom of the employer should trample the rights of the employee who may have a different moral viewpoint.
A compromise from President Barack Obama on whether a religious-owned institution can deny women employees access to contraceptives in health plans (Obama shifted the costs for that coverage directly to the insurance companies) has failed to satisfy the Catholic bishops who continue to protest the plan as an infringement on their religious dogma against birth control, although many other Catholic groups have praised Obama's compromise.
In this campaign year, Republicans have denounced Obama's plan as an unconstitutional infringement on religious freedom. Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri proposed an amendment that would allow any employer to cite a moral objection in denying insurance coverage for any medical service. That raised the prospect that some owner who, say, considers AIDS a judgment from God against immoral behavior could exclude that expensive coverage for employees.
Appeals to the Founders
On the Senate floor on Thursday -- as his proposal was facing a narrow defeat -- Blunt said, "this issue will not go away unless the administration decides to take it away by giving people of faith these First Amendment protections."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky claimed to be speaking for the nation's Founders:
"It was precisely because of the danger of a government intrusion into religion like this one that they left us the First Amendment in the first place, so that we could always point to it and say no government -- no government -- no president has that right. Religious institutions are free to decide what they believe, and the government must respect their right to do so."
The Blunt amendment also tapped into the "hate-government" message of the Tea Party, that "guv-mint" shouldn't be imposing regulations that impinge on "liberty," either for individuals or the states. But these propaganda themes rely on a revisionist founding narrative of the United States, pretending that the Founders opposed a strong central government and wanted a system of states' rights and unrestrained personal liberty.
This narrative -- pushed by Tea Partiers and libertarians -- always skips from the Declaration of Independence of 1776 to the U.S. Constitution of 1787, while ignoring the key government document in between, the Articles of Confederation, which was in force from 1777 to 1787. The Articles represent an inconvenient truth for the Right since they created a system of a weak central government with independent states holding almost all the cards.
Key Founders, such as Virginians George Washington and James Madison, regarded the Articles as unworkable and dangerous to the nation's survival. They decided to reshuffle the deck. So, in 1787, operating under a mandate to propose amendments to the Articles, Washington, Madison and others engineered what amounted to a coup against the old system. In secret meetings in Philadelphia, they jettisoned the Articles and their weak central government in favor of the Constitution and a strong central government.
Madison, the Constitution's chief architect, was also the author of the Commerce Clause, which bestowed on the central government the important power to regulate interstate commerce, which many framers recognized as necessary for building an effective economy to compete with rivals in Europe and elsewhere.
Fooling the Tea Partiers
Today's Right leaves out or distorts this important chapter because it undercuts the message that is sent out to the Tea Partiers -- that they are standing with the Founders by opposing a strong central government. This propaganda has proved to be a very effective way to deceive ill-informed Americans about what the true purpose of the Constitution was.