The First Amendment, by definition, doesn’t need your prayers

I think it’s fascinating that the same people who spent the better part of the last month calling anti-racist college students “coddled” are now curling up into a ball over the mere suggestion that prayers aren’t an adequate substitute for public policy.

But that’s exactly what Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan did this morning, arguing that the wave of “prayer shaming” in the wake of the San Bernardino shooting has put the First Amendment itself at risk. As she titled her column, “The First Amendment Needs Your Prayers,” writing:

Prayer, via Wikimedia Commons

Prayer, via Wikimedia Commons

Americans are growing weary of being told what they can and cannot publicly say, proclaim and think. We all know what’s going on at the colleges, with the mad little Marats and Robespierres who are telling students and administrators what they are and are not allowed to say or do. This is not just kids acting up at this point, it’s a real censorship movement backed by an ideology that is hostile to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It is led by students who, though they managed to get into the greatest universities in the country, seem never to have been taught to love the little amendment that guarantees free speech and free religious observance, the two pillars without which America collapses. And too bad, because when you don’t love something you lose it.

Once again, since this bears repeating, the First Amendment does not protect your bad opinions from being called out as such. It may be your right to say something racist, or sexist, or homophobic, or deliberately deflective, but as this seemingly always-timely XKCD comic shows, it is also my right to call out your speech for what it is:

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The fact that your speech takes the form of a prayer doesn’t protect you from the criticism that your prayer, when used as an anti-anti-gun talking point, is doing more harm than good. That isn’t censorship; that’s disagreement.

The First Amendment doesn’t need your prayers. It isn’t a religious document, nor is it even a social document. It’s a legal document that says that the government can’t, among many other things, prohibit you from expressing your feelings following a mass shooting. That applies to prayers, but it also applies to the opinions about prayers. I don’t call it “censorship” when Noonan writes that I shouldn’t criticize her religious speech, or that I shouldn’t talk about gun regulations following a mass shooting. She’d prefer that I don’t say certain things — and she can criticize me for saying them! — but she isn’t using government to make her preference a political reality. She just has a (wrong, bad, counterproductive) opinion.

Two sides of a political debate are freely exchanging criticisms of each other in the public sphere, and that’s how the system is supposed to work. It may be jarring for Christians to be the target of criticism at this scale, as for the first 200+ years of the United States’ existence they enjoyed a dominant position in our country’s social hierarchy, but these callouts for using prayer as a substitute for public policy represent a loss of a privilege, not the loss of a right.

Noonan writes that, “The censorship movement is radical. It is starting to make everyone in the country feel harassed and anxious.” What a coddled special snowflake. Criticism of prayer isn’t a violation of your rights to free religion and speech. It’s an exercise of mine. I hope she gets the point.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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