“Pray for Liberty of Conscience to revive among us”: The Myth of Religious Freedom in America
Seeded by members of religious groups, those either persecuted in England and Europe or sects at odds with the dominant doctrines passed down by heads of state and church authorities, America’s east coast became a haven for dozens of Protestant splinter sects and others as early as the 1500s. This new land offered something unheard of back home, religious freedom.
We all read that particular chapter in our elementary and junior high school books, with their drawings of earnest, black-garbed Pilgrims kneading bread dough, tilling the soil, or looking quizzically at ears of multi-colored corn. While it is true that those brave folks undertook a treacherous journey in order to practice as they wished, it is not true that they were ready to grant religious freedom to others.
From a review of archived documents in the Library of Congress we learn, “The religious persecution that drove settlers from Europe to the British North American colonies sprang from the conviction, held by Protestants and Catholics alike, that uniformity of religion must exist in any given society. This conviction rested on the belief that there was one true religion and that it was the duty of the civil authorities to impose it, forcibly if necessary, in the interest of saving the souls of all citizens.” To similar ends worldwide, wars have been fought, cities sacked, women raped, kings and queens anointed and murdered, and citizens imprisoned, slaughtered, hung, and burned.
Huguenots, French Protestants, for example, were butchered by French Catholics in regular purges during the 1500s and 1600s, thus encouraging many to seek safety far, far away. Decades before the pilgrims, these maligned Christians had sailed for American shores. When the emperor of Salzburg, Austria, decided to evict 20,000 Lutherans from the city in 1731, some of them ended up in what is now Georgia, USA. Early America’s Puritans, arriving from England and northern Europe were Protestants who sought to create “plantations of religion”, places where, as it turned out, those who escaped one religious tyranny set about constructing another, brick by brick, law by law. In fact, the legal structure and criminal laws in the new colonies were based on scripture, a kind of Puritan sharia law.
“If any man after Legal Convictlion shall HAVE or WORSHIP any other God but the LORD GOD, he shall be put to death,” says the General Laws and Liberties of the Massachusetts Colony. It goes on, quoting directly from Leviticus, “If any person shall Blaspheme the name of god, the father, Sonne or Holie Ghost, with direct, expresse, presumptuous or high handed blasphemie, or shall curse god in the like manner, he shall be put to death.” Any analysis of the documents published by early colonists would reveal, as one Protestant minister put it in 1681, that the “business” of Christian settlers “was not Toleration, but [they] were professed enemies of it.”
In Joseph Belcher’s 1850 tome entitled, The religious denominations in the United States: their history, doctrine, government and statistics. With a preliminary sketch of Judaism, paganism and Mohammedanism he reveals how spiritual tolerance manifested in the colonies. “It will be readily believed that from their first appearance the Friends suffered much persecution. ..Here, though the Pilgrim fathers themselves had but lately fled from Europe that they might enjoy religious freedom, they imprisoned, even hung, some of those Quaker brethren.”
Which is why the founding fathers refused to impose a national religion on the new nation. Even where the Constitution mentions religion, twice in the First Amendment, it does not specify a particular religion. Instead, the Constitution bars laws “respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” and it prohibits “religious tests” for public office, at least at the federal level.
Washington and other members of the Continental Congress had signaled from the earliest days that no one doctrine would attain supremacy over another as regards the republic. Indeed, as Mark Iris wrote for the Chicago Tribune, not only did Washington attend services at a Catholic church one Sunday after he arrived in Philadelphia, but he wrote in later years to a member of the Rhode Island Jewish community, these reassuring words: “for happily, the Government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no tolerance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support. May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants — while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
The state governments were a different story, with laws in place to allow for state support of certain religious institutions, though no sect or group was singled out as dominant. As David Sehat explained in a 2011 story for the Washington Post, “The South was traditionally Anglican but had a growing Methodist and Baptist population. New England was traditionally Congregationalist, but evangelicals moved there nonetheless. The middle colonies mixed Lutherans, Catholics (in Maryland), Presbyterians and Quakers. A small number of Jews lived in early America, as well.”
Thomas Jefferson, the governor of Virginia in 1779, extended an olive branch to diverse faiths with both legislation guaranteeing equality between the churches and homily observances, saying, “…it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
This evidence of an ecumenically balanced America did not sow tolerance amongst the whole. When Joseph Smith established the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, or Mormonism, in the early 1830s, he triggered the ire of mainstream Protestants to the degree that Mormons were regularly persecuted and, in 1838, were banished from the state of Missouri. Bags and wagons packed, they moved as a group to Nauvoo, Illinois, where they flourished and begat large families until the assassination of Smith and his brother forced another, longer move. My own great-great-great grandmother traveled in 1846 from Illinois to what would become Salt Lake City.
In another example, Philadelphia, not living up to its moniker, saw 100s of Irish Catholics set upon, with 20 killed, by Protestants during an 1844 religious uprising so virulent that it became known as the Bible Riots. The pernicious level of anti-Catholic hatred, based on the misbegotten belief that Catholic loyalty would side with the Pope over the nation, was still loud and visible when John F. Kennedy was running for President in 1960.
While the rational and foresighted voices of many American leaders have attempted to pave an unbiased path of protection to each of the nation’s religions, the message hasn’t stuck or at least stuck for long. All of the arguments for not identifying and fixing on a state religion were amply addressed by James Madison in his 1785 “Memorial and Remonstrance…”. “ The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.” Which brings us to the Puritan-colonies-revisited, a modern sector of the population that seeks to mold our nation and individual choice to fit narrow religious dictums. In the process, they are subverting all the fine work of the founding fathers who saw the direction social winds blow and did everything they could to prevent the inevitable destruction caused by religious supremacy and bias.
As James Madison said long ago, “Pray for Liberty of Conscience to revive among us.”