ALEXANDRIA, VA. -- In honor of Constitution Day, which was celebrated yesterday, allow me to dispel the most popular myth about our government: In America, the majority rules.
Wrong answer. One of the basic principles of the U.S. Constitution is that democracy is not an unmitigated good. That's why we have a Bill of Rights -- which gives individuals and minorities some protection against the tyranny of the majority. For, as James Madison recognized, a democracy can be just as despotic as any other form of government. Wrote Madison:
"Wherever the real power in a government lies, there is the danger of oppression. In our government, the real power lies in the majority of the community, and the invasion of private rights is chiefly to be feared, not from acts of government contrary to the sense of its constituents, but from acts in which the government is the mere instrument of the major number of constituents."
Yet, in this Constitution Week, the drumbeat of unfettered majority rule fills the halls of Congress. It threatens the most fundamental liberty, freedom of conscience -- the right listed first in the First Amendment. Given America's religious history, spiritual freedom should be the last thing to be determined by majority will.
But Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., under marching orders from Speaker Newt Gingrich, plans to introduce this month a "Religious Equality Amendment" that will strip religious minorities of their rights. One of his goals for his proposed constitutional amendment is to sanction government-sponsored religious devotions in public schools.
Mr. Istook believes majority rule should be the determiner of the content of such devotions. "It will vary from place to place," he said during a House subcommittee hearing. "In some areas it may be a Jewish prayer, in other areas a Christian prayer. It should be a community decision."
Challenged about the rights of minority students, Mr. Istook responded: "Their disagreement with prayer should not control the others."
The danger of Mr. Istook's majoritarian views would be apparent to religious minorities in early America -- most notably Baptists, who practically invented separation of church and state. In Virginia, Baptists were mercilessly persecuted by the established Church of England (which became the Episcopal Church). Government officials and Anglican clergy forcibly disrupted Baptist worship services.
In 1771, a Virginia Baptist preacher, Brother Waller, was beaten while leading his congregation in singing hymns. When Waller fell on his knees to pray, the local sheriff horsewhipped him. Such incidents led Baptists to rally behind the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty, enacted in 1786. It denounced the "impious presumption of legislators . . . who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others."
Baptists then and now
But today's Baptists, like many religions before them, are tempted by power. As the largest Protestant denomination in America, Baptists now compose the majority in countless communities. Fortunately, some Baptists still remember their spiritual ancestors. The Rev. William G. Wilson, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Waynesboro, Virginia, testified at a House subcommittee hearing in June against Representative Istook's plan for a constitutional amendment to alter separation of church and state.
"A Virginia Baptist has a unique perspective on this subject,' he said. "In our state, we tried joining the church and the government in an attempt to ensure religion's place in society and its influence on public life. All Virginia Baptists had to show for that unholy wedding were some cracked skulls and hard time in local jails. . . . So when I hear the clamor for weaving together religious doctrine and legislation, I say: 'Been there, done that.' Please don't send us back."
Whenever the power of the government is linked to religion, the result is that the majority rules. Representative Istook and others like him are teaching America's schoolchildren that, if they are in the majority, they may disrespect the religious beliefs of their classmates. Nothing is sacred -- anything can be put to a vote. This is a very dangerous lesson.
Justice Robert Jackson, who took a leave of absence from the U.S. Supreme Court to prosecute Nazi war criminals, saw first-hand the consequences of unlimited majority rule. Yet even in 1943, before he traveled to Nuremberg, he gave a recitation of America's gospel: "The very purpose of a Bill of Rights [is] to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities."
James Madison couldn't have said it better.
So in this Constitution Week, those of us who still support Madison must make time to contact our congressional delegations and oppose Representative Istook's amendment. It's the least we can do for the Bill of Rights.
Linda R. Monk is the author of "The Bill of Rights: A User's Guide," which won the American Bar Association's Gavel Award.