Ask most Americans why religious liberty is considered the “first freedom” and they’ll likely say it’s because it comes first in the Bill of Rights.
While technically true (it does comes first) that wasn’t the intention of the original framers of the Constitution The original Bill of Rights included two other amendments that were listed ahead of what we now consider the “First Amendment” but that failed to be ratified.
If the placement of “first” on the list was a mere historical accident, should we still consider religious freedom to be the “first freedom”? Matthew J. Franck explains why we should:
Yet friends of religious freedom should not be embarrassed in the least to continue calling it the first freedom, notwithstanding these picayune historical objections. We have it on no less an authority than James Madison, the father of the Bill of Rights, that our duty to the Creator is “precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.” Would Madison also view religious freedom as taking precedence over, or a pride of place among, our other rights? More to the point, should we?
The case for saying “yes” begins with Madison’s characterization of religious freedom as springing from a duty that we owe to God. It is a kind of American dogma that rights are prior to duties—even the Declaration of Independence seems to say so—but in the case of religious freedom the priority is the other way around. Religious believers—and throughout history that has described most human beings—understand themselves to be in a relationship with a divine, transcendent reality, whether understood as a Person or not, who is in some sense responsible for the ground of their very being. Thus they understand themselves as answerable to this divine reality’s ultimate concerns for humankind and for them as individuals. These concerns entirely encompass our moral life, and shape a kind of compulsion in our lives, a realm of unfreedom where the demands of conscience are concerned.