Why We Have a Bill of Rights


Here's a quiz:

Until relatively recently, it was illegal to read the Bible aloud in which country?

  1. Saudi Arabia
  2. Pakistan
  3. Somalia
  4. Great Britain

Of course, you knew it was a trick question. And by "relatively recently" I did mean the 16th century.

But it's true—at one time you could go to jail for reading the Bible aloud—in Great Britain!

That little episode began when Henry VIII withdrew from the Roman Catholic Church and assumed his role as head of the new Church of England. It only seemed right that the new church should have its own Bible—in English. So Henry authorized a new translation which came to be known as the Great Bible.

But he didn't understand what he was unleashing. Having the Scriptures in their own language aroused a spiritual curiosity in the English populace. As one historian of the time put it, "Everyone who could bought the book and and busily read it or got others to read it to them."

That posed a threat to the king's authority as head of the church. He soon found himself indulging in the same repressive behaviors he had condemned the Pope for.

As Barbara Tuchman recounts in her 1956 book Bible and Sword:

King Henry and the bishops were soon aghast at the flood of Lutheranism let loose by their authorization of the Great Bible. Henry himself was a Protestant only to the point of getting rid of the Pope, not in doctrinal matters.

Henry wasn't really a tolerant fellow, and knew he had to act. The other elites were only too glad to cooperate. Soon, an act of Parliament made it unlawful for "unauthorized persons" to read the Bible aloud.

If that seems absurd now, things only got worse as Catholics and Anglicans took turns persecuting each other—along with the Puritans, Nonconformists, Covenanters and other deviants.

This was just one of the traumatic memories in the minds of America's founders when they added a Bill of Rights to our constitution. Freedom of speech, freedom of religion—those weren't abstract concepts to them. They were life-and-death issues.

Too bad, some of us today think freedom of speech means the right to spout obscenities or publish videos of people copulating.

Have we degenerated as a society?

Perish the thought.

And quit bugging me about it—it's almost time for Desperate Housewives.