The First Amendment Is First for a Reason

Bernat Armangue

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

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 – The First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America

To messers Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, & Stephen S. Nelson, a committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the state of Connecticut.

Gentlemen

The affectionate sentiments of esteem & approbation which you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist association, give me the highest satisfaction. my duties dictate a faithful & zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, and, in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more & more pleasing.

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;” thus building a wall of eternal separation between Church & State. Congress thus inhibited from acts respecting religion, and the Executive authorised only to execute their acts, I have refrained from prescribing even those occasional performances of devotion, practiced indeed by the Executive of another nation as the legal head of its church, but subject here, as religious exercises only to the voluntary regulations and discipline of each respective sect,

[Jefferson first wrote: “confining myself therefore to the duties of my station, which are merely temporal, be assured that your religious rights shall never be infringed by any act of mine and that. These lines he crossed out and then wrote:concurring with“; having crossed out these two words, he wrote:Adhering to this great act of national legislation in behalf of the rights of conscience“; next he crossed out these words and wrote:Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience I shall see with friendly dispositions the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced that he has no natural rights in opposition to his social duties.“]

Thomas Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptist Church, January 1, 1802 (Via the Library of Congress)

Yes, Jefferson was a Deist and created his own version of the Bible. Because of that, the Left is happy to separate him from his slaveholding history when it is convenient and mount attacks against religion. And let us be honest, when the Left attacks religion, it is Christianity and Judaism that are the targets.

Despite what the Left fiercely maintains, Jefferson’s “wall of eternal separation between Church & State” was not meant to constrain religion, but rather the government. Jefferson, just like the other founders, was still very much aware of a costly and, at times, tenuous war to break free of England. The revolution was still fresh in his mind, and Jefferson understood that one of the tenets of British rule was that the head of the government was also the de facto head of the national church. The founders wanted nothing to do with anything similar to that system. In fact, one might argue that because Jefferson did not adhere to the spiritual norms of the rest of the young country, his Deism not only informed but invigorated his position on freedom of religion. And that the government had no business regulating it.

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Of course, during the COVID-19 pandemic that all changed, ostensibly. Depending on where you lived, and that included most of the industrial world and the continental U.S., businesses shut down and mom-and-pop grocery stores shut down. Restaurants, most nightclubs, and bars all shut down. In my state of Utah, the liquor stores, which are controlled by the state, were allowed to operate, as were the big box stores and larger grocery chains.

And churches were closed. It was too dangerous to worship. Too dangerous for communal worship, prayer, and fellowship. And most churches complied. After all, to mask and to vax were on par with doing one’s patriotic duty. Some houses of worship, however, did not. Many of them were Christian churches, but one synagogue took a stand and paid a price.

During the pandemic, on March 19 of 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom issued stay-at-home orders and closed non-essential businesses, which at the time included churches and synagogues. Bike stores, car washes, liquor stores, and even pot dispensaries were allowed to continue to operate. Subsequently, hospitals in the Golden State banned visitors. Later in the year, prisons began releasing inmates to ease the chances of transmission. By May, some businesses such as bookstores and flower shops were allowed to re-open, while churches remained shuttered.  When May 26 dawned, Newsom declared that more businesses would be allowed to open; however, houses of worship would need to limit the number of people in attendance. This was not the result of Newsom’s largesse, but rather a lawsuit filed by Advocates for Faith and Freedom representing over 1200 pastors and a single rabbi, Michael Barclay of Temple Ner Simcha in Westlake Village.

July would bring a new set of challenges, with Newsom banning singing in churches and synagogues. This resulted in some of these entities holding services outdoors. On September 7, thousands turned out for a rally at the capitol in Sacramento to protest the restrictions on churches and synagogues. While it may not have been a direct reaction to the demonstration, the state imposed a new curfew to prevent the spread of COVID in November. On December 3, Newsom announced a new stay-at-home order.

In February of 2021, following a Supreme Court ruling, some churches were allowed to re-open, again with the restriction of limited occupancy. Additionally, attendees at services needed to be masked, maintain social distancing, and even vaccination records had to be maintained. Notably, Newsom restored operations for Disneyland and Major League Baseball teams in California on March 5 with an official date of April 1. California agreed to pay damages to churches on June 2, coupled with an agreement not to impose restrictions greater than those faced by retail businesses. During 2022, the state allowed mask mandates to expire and retired its color-coded tier system that had set the original occupancy limits.

During the pandemic, Rabbi Barclay made the decision not to close Temple Ner Simcha. Originally, he had intended to comply with the state orders but was moved when a woman appeared at the temple to pray the Kaddish, or mourner’s prayer for her deceased mother. As the woman pleaded for the opportunity to pray for her mother’s soul, Barclay knew that Ner Simcha would keep its doors open for the faithful.

Instead of closing its doors, the temple hosted live services and classes and streamed them for those who did not feel comfortable attending in person. It was the only temple that offered in-person High Holiday services in 2020 and one of very few that did so in 2021 in California. To meet the need, the temple offered double services. It was by all indications the largest provider of those services in the nation with an attendance of over 700 people. By contrast, most synagogues in the Los Angeles area decided to forego live services through the spring of last year. Aside from Ner Simcha, only a few temples chose that option. The lockdown took its toll on synagogues, and from 2020-2022, more synagogues closed or merged than ever before in the nation’s history. Temple Ner Simcha was the exception.

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Of course, during the “Plague Years,” so to speak, shutting oneself up, getting all of the boosters, and masking oneself whenever and wherever possible were considered signs of intellectual and moral superiority, and Barclay’s choice to buck the system did not come without a price. Barclay was personally targeted as was his home. The latest attack came in October of last year when someone threw M-80s at his home and others vandalized it. During the pandemic, Barclay was the target of hate via email and social media posts. There is enough anti-Semitism and hate that, sadly, these things should come as no surprise. But according to Barclay, some of the ire came from other rabbis. Temple Ner Simcha was accused of killing people by having live services. One person said that Barclay and his board “should be arrested and die.”

The temple lost around one-third of its congregation. Those people believed that the synagogue was being irresponsible by having services, even those conducted outside. While some have returned, many have chosen to stay away. Now, the temple has armed security during services because of the level of vitriol Barclay and the board have received. Despite the loss in membership, Temple Ner Simcha is still open and still serving its congregation. Other synagogues closed after opting to stream services online, which helped to contribute to attrition. Barclay and his board remain committed to serving people across the political spectrum — in person.

It might be tempting for some on the Left to label Barclay as an extremist, standing on the bema with an American flag in one hand, an Israeli flag in the other, an AR-15 slung across his back, and a MAGA hat in place of a yarmulke. But as someone who has watched multiple sermons, I can tell you that Barclay keeps politics out of the pulpit. When it comes to his congregation, Barclay wants to help his congregants reach a deeper relationship with God through Judaism. When Barclay does veer into politics, he stays within the realms of denouncing anti-Semitism and defending the nation of Israel. In addition to being the only rabbi to participate in the lawsuit by Advocates for Faith and Freedom, Barclay was also the sole rabbi to help more than 100 families to get religious exemptions for their children for vaccine requirements, as well as people get exemptions for work. He was also a speaker at multiple events, discussing religious freedom. While many people supported his efforts, there was further vitriol from others.

A member of the local Jewish community commented that the mandate to close houses of worship in the area was foolish. He called the state’s approach a method of controlling people and separating them from their communities. He told me that in his opinion, those clergy and lay people who criticized the decisions to keep churches and synagogues open were left-leaning people who were buying into propaganda from various government agencies. He added, “The political pendulum must be moved to the center-right in order to regain our democratic values and way of life as intended by our founding fathers. Currently, we have lost our way. Belief in G-d is criticized by the Left. And the more G-d is removed from our lives the more dangerous our society becomes.”

It should be remembered that 2020 saw not only the Summer of COVID but the Summer of Floyd. And the appendant riots. Barclay drew further ire and public castigation by speaking out against BLM’s anti-Semitic rhetoric and for noting the movement’s similarity to hate groups throughout history.

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Bryce Eddy, who is a podcaster and member of Godspeak Calvary Chapel Church, told me that his congregation was “right in the middle” of the COVID controversy. Godspeak Calvary, said Eddy, remained open in defiance of the government mandates. While the church was fined several hundred thousand dollars, it was victorious in cases against the state and local governments.

Eddy maintains that in any pluralistic society, there is a dominant religion, and in this case, it is the Judeo-Christian tradition. The U.S., says Eddy, is becoming a secular society. And while God is not disappearing, He is being replaced with the “spirituality” of environmentalism, gender, and globalism. Only the Judeo-Christian tradition allows for individualism. The reverse of that tradition is to “pay up, join the globalist religion or die.”

Many of the people whom Eddy knew lined up to oppose the lockdowns since plagues and pandemics exist across the world. They felt that the numbers were manipulated and exaggerated. Eddy points to incidents in which people died in vehicle-related accidents or drug overdoses, whose deaths were attributed to the virus. He asserts that there was a financial incentive to create big numbers for COVID and that hospitals were being rewarded proportionate to COVID cases. Eddy also notes that in his area, pot and liquor stores, strip clubs and the like remained open while churches were forced to close their doors. Eddy believes that much of that was due to the fact that in addition to the transfer of wealth from small businesses to corporate entities, the government realized that churches provided access to fellowship and communication. Eddy observed, “Rebellions against tyranny begin in pubs and churches.”  Eddy noted that the goal of the lockdowns was to create isolation and to teach people to fear one another.

During the pandemic, Eddy detected a particular animus against churches, specifically those who wanted to stay independent and free. They were accused by the government and those who complied with the mandates of creating disunity. There were verbal attacks against churches that did not comply, and those churches were also accused of engaging in politics in the pulpit. Commonly, Romans 13: 1-7 was used as the basis for the accusations:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give to everyone what you owe them: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor.

While those are sound words when one has a just government, it could be argued that one has no obligation to submit to an unjust government. And if the goal of a government is not to serve but to subjugate, whither then?

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Eddy sees the lockdowns and government creep as attacks against the smallest form of government: the family. That attack has come in the form of things such as drag shows, the cult of abortion, and the proclivity to assault all things that are antithetical to a global government. The lockdowns, posits Eddy, were dry runs to see how the population would react. The globalists, he says, were astonished at the level of success since the restrictions revealed how weak and cowardly people could be. Conversely, in terms of communities of faith, the crisis separated the wheat from the chaff, displaying in full flower which churches were dedicated to the Gospel, versus those that were dedicated to the world.

So how do we fight back? Eddy says the answer is in community, and that we must find courage and strength together. By standing united, global interests cannot defeat us.

Christian speaker and musician Bob Kilpatrick said that the problem of churches closing lies in part at the feet of Christians themselves as their numbers have declined over the years. Kilpatrick noted, “I think this is an indication of a kind of Christianity that, to use a metaphor given to us by Jesus, is like salt that has lost its ability to preserve and enhance— to impact for good the culture in which it exists. We have become comfortable with a kind of Christianity that has, for lack of a better term, become America’s folk religion. Frankly, what we need is another great reformation.”

Kilpatrick believes that during the pandemic, and even before and after, there has been an animus directed at Jews and Christians. He holds that there is a spiritual component, as mentioned in Ephesians 6:12. But in conjunction with that, he notes that human government is by nature “self-serving and self-perpetuating.” Any group of people who can be coalesced against it is seen by the government as an inherent threat. He adds that Judaism and Christianity encourage debate, dissent, and freedom of thought. Those concepts are in contravention of big government. He also commented that religion encourages an allegiance to something greater than government, and “one nation under God” is antithetical to “one nation.”

Notably, Kilpatrick seemed to indicate that it is how we choose to live our lives, not necessarily how we protest that will win the day. People of faith, Jewish or Christian, must intentionally live their faith. Kilpatrick said:

However, the usurpation of freedom rarely requires a heroic act of resistance, but a series of small, deliberate choices. We are rarely called upon to give our lives unto death, but we are always called upon to resist the incremental incursions upon our personal freedoms, given by God. The practical implication of this is that the war is fought in small, mundane ways, rather than larger-than-life, heroic ways.

We must be who we are, and moreover who God has told us to be. That does not mean transgressing the laws of the land, but at times, we view them through a different lens.

Rabbi Barclay offers this parable from the Talmud:

Said Pappus to him: “Akiva, are you not afraid of the government?” Said Rabbi Akiva to him: “I’ll give you a parable. A fox was walking along a river and saw fish rushing to and fro. Said he to them: “What are you fleeing?” Said they (the fish) to him: “The nets that the humans spread for us.” Said he (the fox) to them: “Why don’t you come out onto the dry land? We’ll live together, as my ancestors lived with your ancestors.” Said they to him: “Are you the one of whom it is said that you are the wisest of animals? You’re not wise, but foolish! If, in our environment of life we have cause for fear, how much more so in the environment of our death!” The same applies to us. If now, when we sit and study the Torah, of which it is said (Deuteronomy 30:20), “For it is your life and the lengthening of your days,’ such is our situation, how much more so if we neglect it…”

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We should not abandon our natural element with all of its inherent risks, for one that will surely throttle us.

All too often, comparisons to the Third Reich are thrown around carelessly. And the word “Nazi” has been used so often, particularly by those on the Left, that the very real danger exists of the word becoming trite and robbed not just of its historical context, but of the absolute, deliberate, and calculated horror that was unleashed upon the world by those who saw themselves as superior to the people around them. The legacy of institutionalized propaganda and hate did not end with a bullet and a cyanide capsule in a bunker in Berlin. It did not end with the liberation of the camps, or even with the last of the butchers drawing their final breaths somewhere in South America. It is with us to this day. And while we have not approached a place in which our country has adopted the mentality that gripped Europe in the ’30s and ’40s, the seeds of that mindset always seem to fall on fertile ground. And they are easily nurtured and take root among people of all races, religions, and countries. The cycle is constantly ready to begin anew, and hate and a lust for power and position know no lines of demarcation. And this particular brand of evil is adept at appearing in appealing attire, using soft, sweet words that degenerate into despicable rhetoric. It begins by using affirmation, empathy, and the desire to redress grievances. It posits lofty ideals and grand visions. It promises to set things right, and create a “greater good.” But what it delivers is a descent into madness.

On the cross, Christ said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And it is the purview of God to forgive sins. But it is the purview of man to say “Never again.” And mean it. And it is the simultaneous blessing and curse of man to grapple with the notion that justice and truth are often neither easy nor comfortable. And in taking a stand, we do more than combat the evil itself. We also offer its purveyors the opportunity to purge themselves of their hatred, their delusions, and their anger. We give them the chance for redemption. And what if they should choose the lower road? What if they forego their better angels and instead embrace their lesser demons? We may pity them and we may pray for them. A single compromised soul should be the sorrow of all mankind.

But we must also stand against such behavior. It really is as simple as that.  The world has grown smaller in the years since 1945. We can no longer afford to let the Hitlers, Stalins, Maos, and Pol Pots of the world continue on their respective ways, dragging the rest of us to destruction. And when the seeds of their legacies begin to sprout, no matter how small or innocuous or even benevolent they may seem, and no matter what the stated intentions may be in their sowing, we must be ready to pull them up by the roots. And we must refuse to let them find a garden in our own hearts.

Evidence continues to mount that COVID-19, while deadly to some, was largely co-opted by people who saw that the crisis allowed them to accumulate wealth and power, and reset old paradigms. Or to put it bluntly, enlarge the playpen in which they were permitted to romp. It became a solution in search of a problem. Our leaders saw fit not to resolve the crisis, but to exploit it.

To return at last to Jefferson and the Constitution: Michael Novak, who was arguably one of the last great thinkers of the 21st Century, once commented that praise is that which is naturally due to the Creator by His creatures. Whatever Jefferson’s shortcomings may have been, and whatever the faults of the Founders, what was understood was that the praise and the relationship between God and His children are defined by God, and God alone. Government lacks the compassion and for that matter the passion to create, or even comprehend, the parameters of that relationship. At best, it may ape God with lofty words and unfulfillable promises. But despite its efforts, it cannot displace God. The profane may contemplate the mysteries of the Divine and even wrestle with them. But humans, particularly governments, can never fully grasp or define the connection. Jefferson understood that, as did the framers of the Constitution. And perhaps on some level, they understood that governments are all too eager to replace the Divine with a king, a prime minister, a president, a committee, or a system. This robs God of His people and His people of Him. And it robs them of their souls.

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Barclay continues to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Eddy, Kilpatrick, and others who champion the right to worship. Barclay has attended Eddy’s services, and Eddy and Kilpatrick have reciprocated. Kilpatrick also makes a point of visiting Temple Ner Simcha for scripture studies. Eddy’s daughter also plays violin at the temple’s Yom Kippur services. They may seem to be unlikely allies, given their respective faiths. But they realize that whenever the rights of one are infringed upon, everyone suffers. Not just the faithful, but those who would give up their rights for safety, security, and temporary peace of mind.

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