Most reasonable people worldwide were horrified at the near prospect of Florida pastor Terry Jones hosting an event at his local church to commemorate September 11 by setting fire to copies of Islam’s holy book. World leaders from United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to General David Petraeus warned him against carrying out his plans. Yet, in the midst of the whole controversy, I found myself feeling strangely proud of America.
Let me begin by saying I do find the prospect of having an event strictly to destroy things that others find sacred as abhorrent in the extreme. However, I look around the world and wonder how many places around the world would even tolerate such a debate, let alone allow such a thing to happen. In China, where the government will maintain social harmony at all costs? In a Russia where protestors are routinely denied permits if the government doesn’t feel like issuing them? In a Saudi Arabia where it is illegal to establish a church? The distressing fact is the number of places where freedom of expression remains as beloved as the United States remains low in the modern day.
Why is something of this level of disgustingness such a shining example of freedom of speech? It is no great measure of a society that it tolerates the majority opinion to be expressed. If the United States had followed such a course throughout its whole history, “radical” ideas such as the abolition of slavery would never have been allowed to be discussed in public. I remind the modern liberal who thinks that Pastor Jones has no right to do what he almost did that there are many who believe there is no place for gay rights in this nation. But the First Amendment is not a cafeteria: we must take the issues we support with those we despise. Neo-Nazis and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have the exact same right to march as each other as long as their marching does not infringe upon another’s personal freedoms. If one of them loses its ability to do so, the other is threatened as well. Just because you don’t personally want to set fire to a religious text does not mean the right to do so isn’t critically important to you just as much as to those who do.
A survey released recently by the First Amendment Center revealed that exactly six percent of Americans can name all five rights of protected by the amendment – five rifgts that all too few enjoy worldwide (speech, religion, press, petition, and assembly, although I’m sure you all knew them already). I’m sure it was with statistics in mind that we were all given Constitutions in our mailboxes. I would strongly encourage all of you to pick them up from their current spot serving as snazzy coasters and spend a few minutes looking it over. If you already tossed it, I want to leave you with a quote from Thomas Madison I found in the booklet.
“A well-instructed people alone can be a permanently free people.”
May we always remain a well-instructed people.