The First Amendment has been in the news quite a bit this week, from the president’s bizarre idea to revoke NBC’s broadcasting license because he didn’t like what they said about him, to an Indiana legislator who actually proposed a bill to license journalists, to the president’s claim that we would all be saying “Merry Christmas” again because of his devotion to religious liberty.
So here are five books that have illuminated my thinking about the First Amendment:
- Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty, by John M. Barry. This is a biography of Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island. But it is also the biography of a debate between John Winthrop — the Puritan who wanted to make the Massachusetts Bay colony a beacon of Christianity — and Williams, an equally devout Christian who nonetheless believed that church and state should be completely separated. It was Williams’s ideas, Barry argues, that influenced the Founders’ thinking on religious freedom:
Cultural commentators and anthropologists speak of the “myths” which inform and define a society. But it is no myth that the Puritans who founded Massachusetts came to build a Christian country, a city on a hill that would shine for all the world to see. They believed themselves and this nation to be chosen and blessed by God. That belief is not myth but reality, and it has informed this nation’s identity ever since.
But it is also not myth but reality that those Puritans fled England because they would not submit to forced prayer: they would not submit to the use of the Book of Common Prayer. They would not even sit silently as nonparticipants while others listened to prayers from it.
And it is also not myth but reality that another informing principle runs like a great river through American history and culture. That principle was first articulated when Roger Williams declared that the state must not enforce those of the Ten Commandments which defined the relationship between humanity and God. It matured when he further separated himself from the dominant view of the day and declared a citizenry “distinct from the government set up…. [S]uch governments as are by them erected and established have no more power, nor for longer time, than the civil power or people consenting and agreeing shall betrust them with.”
Very much worth reading and considering if you’re interested in the roots of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
- All the President’s Men, by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. This can’t be an unfamiliar book to most people, but it was the first book I thought of when I saw Trump fulminating about broadcast licenses. Don’t you think Nixon would have liked to shut down the Washington Post in 1973? Do you think that his diehard supporters would have licensed Woodward and Bernstein? There are really good reasons why the government does not get involved in who is allowed to say what. (It’s worth noting, as well, that the Watergate story would be a mere footnote, if even that, if Woodward and Bernstein had not had the cooperation of anonymous sources.)
- The Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944 – 1956, by Anne Applebaum. Granted, this book is immense and takes a while to get through. But Applebaum really nails down the details of what it’s like to live in a society with no freedom, and the central philosophy of the oppressors that the government cannot be doing anything terrible because the government is always right is frighteningly close to what is being espoused by some Trump supporters today. This philosophy is exactly why the First Amendment was ratified in the first place.
- Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63, by Taylor Branch. This is a magisterial work of history (with two sequels, which you should also read) about the Civil Rights movement in general and Martin Luther King, Jr., in particular. To read this is to understand not just why the Civil Rights protests in the 1960s needed to happen, but also the absolutely central role the First Amendment played in the protests.
- Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn. This is a wildly entertaining, unputdownable examination of a fictional totalitarian society, and a tribute to freedom of expression.