Freedom of Religion: Your Choice--All or None

Roger Williams: Listen to the Man! 

The First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution opens with: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” It is far less ambiguous than the Second Amendment, which much of the American public treats as if it’s actually one of the Ten Commandments. Why, one wonders, do so many Americans support religious bodies seeking to dismantle the wall between church and state? The words of the Constitution point out danger–any group imposing its desires in the public realm would be a de facto establishment of a state religion that would jeopardize the free exercise of others’ beliefs.

Earlier in the week I spoke of my youthful interest in theology. Somewhere along the line I read about Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island colony and the spiritual father of the Northern Baptists. Williams is generally viewed as the first Colonial figure to advocate true freedom of religion, what he called “liberty of conscience.” Among the biggest myths in American history is that colonists came to the New World to practice freedom of religion. Rubbish! They came to specific places to practice their religion, but they respected no others. The Puritans–a dissenting group within the Church of England–came to Massachusetts Bay because they were persecuted in England, just as the Pilgrims­–officially known as Separatists because they had bolted the C of E–settled in Plymouth for the same reason. Once ensconced, neither tolerated those who followed another religious path. The New World was like Europe, where the established pattern was “religion follows the crown,” meaning that the only countenanced faith was that of the ruler–the very thing the First Amendment aimed to avoid.

Roger Williams (and later, William Penn) did not argue for religious tolerance because he was a wooly-headed liberal or a moral relativist. Williams was convinced that his own Anabaptist views were correct and that most of those who followed other religions were hell-bound. In truth, Williams was an astute political thinker. Williams held that all liberty, not just of conscience, was linked to tolerance and that unless broad forms of thought, doctrines, and practices were allowed, few things could be practiced without persecution, bloodshed, and chaos. In a nutshell, if any religious group whatsoever controlled public policy, repressive theocracy emerged in its wake. Few listened to Williams in the 1630s, but the Founders heeded his lesson 150 years later. These days, Roger Williams sounds like a prophet.

Think I’m an alarmist? You cannot name a religious group that has not been persecuted at some point in American history. In fact, many of today’s would-be oppressors are yesterday’s oppressed. Southern Baptists, for instance, were beaten and jailed in 17th century Virginia, when the colony had a law requiring attendance at Anglican  (C of E) services. Maryland was originally founded as a haven for Roman Catholics, but the law was repealed in 1649, and only the C of E was legal. The colonies, with the exceptions of Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, had regional theocracies: most of New England was for Puritans and Separatists, the Chesapeake region was for Anglicans, the backcountry South was for Presbyterians (especially Ulster Scots), the Delaware Valley was for Lutheran Swedes, Quakers went to Pennsylvania, and swaths of New York and New Jersey settled by the Dutch were dominated by Dutch Reformed Calvinists who quarreled with most other Calvinists. Stray outside of your region without converting/conforming and you were in trouble, like the four Quakers hanged in Boston between 1659 and 1661. Lest we forget, Williams founded Rhode Island after having been kicked out of Massachusetts by both Puritans and Separatists. Most of New England also outlawed Methodists, Presbyterians, and Unitarians until 1760. Had any Catholic been so foolish as to tread Boston’s cobblestones, the kindest fate at the hands of good Puritans would be corrective measures such as cutting off his ears and nose. As for pagan beliefs, three words: Salem witch trials.

The American Revolution did not end religious disputes. Methodists were periodically roughed up in the Northeast, Methodist women were beaten by mobs in the South, and those welcoming slaves into their ranks or taking up the abolitionist cause were sometimes lynched. Congregationalist (former Puritans) abolitionists were fair game for racist mobs in North and South alike. When Joseph Smith founded the Mormons in the 1830, his sect was chased from New York to Missouri to Illinois to Nebraska before making its way to Utah in 1847. A trail of death was left behind. Once in Utah, Mormons fought a war against the United States in 1857-58; they also murdered westbound non-Mormon emigrants that strayed into their territory. Only Roman Catholics and Jews rivaled Mormons on the victimization scale, and they had the good sense to avoid massacres of their own or they would be annihilated. The Ku Klux Klan targeted all three groups after the Civil War and well into the 20th century. Anti-Semitism was the official norm until after World War II and remains a cancer in American society. As late as 1960, John Kennedy had to ward off suspicions of his Catholicism and he remains the only Catholic president. Mennonites have been jailed for their pacifism. More recently, American Muslims were the targets of post-9/11 wrath, as were Hindus and Buddhists at the hands of those too stupid to know they weren’t Muslims. Mitt Romney’s Mormonism was a prejudicial factor in the 2012 election, especially from evangelical conservatives who refused to support a faith they call a “cult.” And there’s the entire “Obama is a Muslim” nonsense!

In short, America can ill afford to be a religious nation! It’s one thing–and not a good one–for a homogenous land such as Saudi Arabia or Iran to be a theocracy, but such an attempt in the United States would result in a bloodbath that would make Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaiden’s Tale look like a fairy tale by comparison. Many of the Founders were non-Christian Deists, but it wasn’t theology that led them to write the First Amendment; it was the ghost of Roger Williams. He is as right today as he was in the 1630s–all of us must have freedom of conscience, or none of us do. If you are religious, you should insist that your faith stay out of political debate. If you can’t do this for the sake of liberty, do it to keep your ears and the padlock off your house of worship.

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