07 July 2010

ESSAY 1: Religious Freedom in America

I have not posted in a very long time. I am trying to change that. This is the first in a series of essays I am going to post on this blog. I hope I can post more regularly.

Those who migrated to America from 1629 to 1775 were not “paradigms of diversity” as we would define it today. Almost all came from the same part of Europe, spoke the same language, and believed in the same God. However, there was plenty that they disagreed on. There were serious cultural differences among the people who colonized America. The people of colonial America all sought to worship God in their own way. In England the Anglican Church was not going to allow this to happen. Interference from the State into religious affairs was a fact of life. Puritan reformers wanted to “purify” the Anglican Church of some of the practices and customs that were deemed to be too much like the Catholic traditions that the church was supposed to have abandoned. The Puritans wanted the Anglican Church to be “more Protestant” and the Stuart Kings, as head of the Church of England, did not like this criticism. Many feared that the monarchy was increasingly influenced by the Catholic Church.


The formula for religious freedom in America looked something like this: Suspicion + Dislike = Liberty. Each group, whether they were Puritan, Quaker, Catholic, or any of the other various Christians migrating from Europe to America had a fundamental disagreement with their country of origin. The State regulated religious affairs to a high degree in Europe. There was an official State religion. If you did not practice that religion in accordance to law, or more likely royal decree, you were likely persecuted. Now, these differing groups shared two things: they disliked each other, and they were suspicious of government involvement in religious affairs. Quakers in colonial America disliked Puritans, and that dislike was mutual. To Quakers the Puritans were stuffy and misguided. The Puritans saw the Quakers as licentious and strange. There were even instances of Quakers causing a ruckus in Puritan towns. They would disrupt Puritan church services, and in at least one instance, strode about the pews naked in the middle of a sermon. These groups disliked and distrusted each other. They all distrusted State involvement in religion. So, these groups made it a point in every colony to protect their right to worship as they please. The best way to ensure this right was to make freedom of worship a fundamental right not subjected to the whims of the rulers or colonial assembly. Each religious denomination in every colony was vigilant against interference from others in their personal religious affairs. The sentiment among the colonies was that each should mind their own business, and more importantly so should any governmental element.

The common thread for all of these groups was the desire to live their lives and practice their faith without interference from outside groups or the State. In colonial America this was possible. Primarily due to the sheer distance separating them, the colonies were relatively free from the dogmatic influences of their country of origin. The Atlantic was a buffer between the colonies and the religious turmoil back home. So these groups that escaped persecution in England, or elsewhere, were successful in achieving the religious freedom that they sought to establish. The colonies became progressively less European as time went on. They established their own culture, religious traditions, and legislative assemblies and laws. They gained a measure of self government that was impossible to achieve in the highly hierarchical European monarchies. This translated into, if not tolerance, an acceptance of other religious practices. People did not want other groups or government meddling around in religious affairs. So they protected all faiths by ensuring that the colonial legislatures could not regulate the religious affairs of any group.

The “wall of separation” (as Jefferson would later describe in private letters) was not designed to cut religion out of government affairs. It was designed to keep the government from meddling in the affairs of the faith. In fact many colonies had an official religion even at the signing of the Constitution, and it was wholly compatible with the letter of the Constitution as understood by the Framers. The First Amendment prohibited the federal government from interfering in the religious affairs of the states. It is important to understand this distinction if we are to understand what religious freedom is all about. The Constitution is designed to guarantee that religious establishments are safe from outside interference from the government. The “separation of church and state” is a phrase not found in the Constitution, or in any of the colonial charters or state Constitutions. Today when federal courts strike down religious expression within the states, they are perverting the meaning of the First Amendment. The Founders intended NO federal intervention in religious issues of any kind. It is therefore my contention that the colonies were successful in establishing freedom of religion, and furthermore we have lost much of that freedom today. Every time some federal judge or some bureaucrat insists that a local courthouse or school purge all symbols of religious expression we are destroying that freedom. All of the colonies protected religious freedom and individual rights while still displaying the symbols of the prominent faith in the colony. In today’s world we have perverted the meaning of religious freedom to mean absolutely no religious expression. While in general we are still free to worship as we choose, there are those who are trying to take that freedom away. In colonial times, such usurpations would not be tolerated. While there have always been elements that have exploited religion and wielded it as a tool to get what they wanted, the story of colonial America is one of unprecedented religious freedom. While this term has changed in meaning somewhat over the last 200 or so years it still retains its relevance today. This adherence to individual rights, and the right to pursue a faith as one pleased was the cornerstone of the struggle for independence that would culminate in the founding of the greatest beacon of liberty the world has ever seen.