Why religious persecution violates American values
What other country sets its sights so high or struggles so hard to live up to its ideals? Where is national identity based so completely on shared values that include respect for the right of anyone to be wrong?
We have abundant reason to rejoice that in this land the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition, and that every person may here worship God according to the dictates of his own heart,” wrote an optimistic President Washington to the members of New Church in Baltimore. “In this enlightened age and in this land of equal liberty it is our boast,” the great man continued, “that a man’s religious tenets will not forfeit the protection of the laws, nor deprive him of the right of attaining and holding the highest that are known in the United States.”
Here was the decent, extraordinary Washington at his most compelling. But was the man who had kept the country together through the Revolution and difficult years that immediately followed correct in his belief that America somehow had bridged the deep divisions that separate mankind over questions of religious faith and that elsewhere have led to so much bloodshed?
The answer is that Washington was both right and wrong. Protestant America did not take kindly to the huge influx of Catholic immigrants during the 19th century. Quakers and (later) Mormons felt the brunt of some of the most violent bigotry in US. history
And people of other faiths would find themselves outsiders, too. But the gist of what Washington wrote to the congregation in Baltimore remained true nonetheless: In America religious freedom had been achieved as in no other country in world history, but it had been won with great difficulty and it has continued to be difficult to maintain the level of civility in religious matters which the very civil father of his country foresaw as a central part of the American experiment.
“Unfortunately, our historical experience has an awful lot of antireligious bigotry in it. There is a lot of ugliness there. Whoever controlled the relevant levels of power seemed all too willing to use that power against whatever the minority faith was,” says evangelical Christian and syndicated columnist Doug Bandow (see “Christianity Meets Libertarianism, and Bandow Makes It a Match” p. 20).
Bandow adds: “At the same time, religious bigotry is un-American in a larger sense in an America that values individual liberty and individual dignity. In that kind of America — and I think individual liberty and dignity are animating values of America — religious bigotry has no place.”
Two 17th-century Americans, Thomas Hooker and Roger Williams, laid the groundwork for tolerance and religious freedom on this continent. Both were clergymen — and both certainly were very devout Christians — whose disagreements with the reigning Puritan orthodoxies of the Massachusetts Bay Colony led them to abandon Massachusetts for Connecticut (in Hooker’s case) and Rhode Island (in Williams’) and set up new colonies where they could pursue faith according to their own consciences.
Both men came to believe in the sanctity of the individual conscience at a time when European nations had been embroiled in religious wars between Catholics and Protestants for over a century and when European monarchs — or Parliament in the case of England — imposed state religions on their subjects and punished heresy severely, often with death. State-imposed established churches were the norm in the colonies as well.
Hooker, speaking in a famous sermon delivered on May 31, 1638, declared that “the foundation of authority is laid, first in the free consent of the people [emphasis added].” Hooker based his democratic convictions on Deuteronomy 1:13, where God ordered the Israelites to “choose some men from each tribe who have wisdom, understanding, and a good reputation, and I will appoint them as your leaders.” In Hooker’s Connecticut, there would be no religious test for the right to vote.
Williams was even further ahead of his time. “True civility and Christianity may both flourish in a state or kingdom, notwithstanding the permission of divers and contrary consciences, either of Jew or Gentile,” he declared from his pulpit in Rhode Island.
Williams also held that “God requireth not an uniformity of religion to be inacted and inforced in any civil state,” and perhaps more extraordinarily believed that “It is the will and command of God that … a permission of the most paganish, Jewish, or anti-Christian consciences and worships, bee granted to all men in all nations and countries.”
Hooker and Williams exerted enormous influence on later American history. “Among the Founding Fathers there was a tremendous bout of concern about being open-minded on religion,” says University of Alabama historian Forrest McDonald, who points out that Washington, as president, “went out of his way to assure that American Jews were included” when he spoke of national days of fasting and thanksgiving.
Thomas Jefferson was the author of laws to protect freedom of worship and disestablished the Anglican Church in Virginia. His friend James Madison — the father of the Constitution — saw religious variety as essential to American freedom, since no one religion would come to dominate and all would be allowed to worship God in the way they chose. “In a free government, the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights,” Madison wrote in the Federalist No. 51. “It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects. The degree of security in both cases will depend on the number of interests and sects; and this may be presumed to depend on the extent of country and the number of people comprehended under the same government.”
But religious tolerance was a difficult business. The Virginia Declaration of Rights disestablished the Anglican Church but had not granted Baptists and other dissenting groups full rights, notes McDonald in his book on the intellectual origins of the Constitution, Novus Ordo Seclorum.
And in the 1780s, when there was a noted decline in religiosity in the state, prominent figures such as Patrick Henry, who once had declared “Give me liberty or give me death” — grew alarmed and pressed the Virginia Legislature to turn over land to private churches to strengthen their financial situation. Another bill would have given state salaries to teachers of the Christian religion. Henry’s demand provoked Madison to write his famous “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments,” which circulated around the state for signatures of those who opposed the bills. They were defeated.
The French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville, who traveled in America during the early 1830s, marveled at how no one in the United States was required to join a particular religious group. With reasons similar to Madison’s, Tocqueville found this a good thing, emphasizing how America’s voluntary denominationalism had led to the creation of a wide variety of organizations that acted as buffers between the individual and the state and protected freedom.
One dramatic indicator of religious freedom in America was the Sunday Mail Laws, passed by Congress in 1810, during Madison’s first administration. These laws authorized the postmaster general to sort and deliver mail on Sundays, the traditional Christian day of rest. In 1825, postmasters received orders to keep their offices open to the public the whole day long.
In a 1996 book, American Exceptionalism, A Double-Edged Sword, political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset describes the reaction: Angry churchmen formed A General Union for Promoting the Observance of the Christian Sabbath. Congress responded by creating a Senate committee headed by Kentucky Sen. Richard Johnson, who also was president of a national organization of Baptists.
Johnson’s report on the Sunday post-office openings concluded: “The Constitution regards the conscience of the Jew as sacred as that of the Christian” and said government institutions should be available “on Sunday, as well as every day of the week.” Propelled in part by his work on that report, Johnson was Martin Van Buren’s vice-presidential running mate in the election of 1836.
Lipset also notes that in 1860, when Jews could not hold public office in most European countries, the House of Representatives was opened by a prayer by a rabbi, acknowledging “the equal status of Judaism, with Christianity, as an American faith.” The following year, 1861, when Congress passed a law requiring military chaplains to be regularly ordained ministers of Christian denominations and American Jewish groups protested, an amendment was added to the bill allowing rabbis to be chaplains too.
McDonald notes that bigotry reached a low point with the immigration laws of the 1920s, which severely limited the arrival of new Americans from such countries and areas as Italy and Eastern Europe — many of whom were Catholics and Jews. McDonald sums up that in the world at large, “bigotry has been pretty much the norm, but you shouldn’t knock America for not living up to its high ideals, for no other country sets those ideals so high or struggles to live up to them.”
Says Bandow: “I think there is a real tension in the American history. An ugly history at times, while we also have transcendent values that flow through that experience and that call us to account and call American history into account.”
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