Freedom of Religion in the United States
This is the story of Freedom of Religion in the United States and its subsequent assault and attempt at subjugation by the concept of “Separation of Church and State”
The fundamental right of Religious Freedom and the imposition of the concept of the Separation of Church and State are embroiled in a constant struggle. The latter concept as it was and is invoked in the conduct of our lives and in our society affairs is a misrepresentation, a lie, that spread throughout the nation before the truth got its boots on, and is now regarded by most as a factual truth. Paradoxically, neither the term, nor the concept of “Separation of Church and State” appears in the U.S. Constitution. Yet, the overreaching, misguided and zealous invoking of the concept of Separation of Church and State as if it is the law of the land in our Constitution has effectively served to diminish the actual free exercise of religion specifically provided for in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights.
The first tenet in the Bill of Rights as stated in the First Amendment to the Constitution is that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” (“respecting” may be read as “pertaining to” or “with respect to”)
Episode 1 – Arrival of the Pilgrims and the Establishment of the Colonies
Religious intolerance before the founding of the United States was, with few exceptions, the norm throughout the early history of “civilized” people. It was part and parcel of the subjugation of one people by another. Religious observances by the conquered people were typically forbidden by the invading country, not to convert the conquered, but because of the threat it represented to their control. This was not always the case. The spread of Islam was religiously motivated. The Romans on the other hand allowed occupied peoples to maintain their religious observances as long as they also “respected the Roman Gods” – the Jewish people, interestingly, were granted an exemption.
The “right” of freedom of religion in America had its origins in post-Reformation Europe. New Christian denominations such as the Moravians, French Huguenots, and the Puritans were persecuted and struggled against governmental “state” religion demands for universal acceptance. These early religious freedom conflicts laid the historical groundwork for an individual’s right to freedom of religion ultimately guaranteed in America’s Bill of Rights.
But surprisingly Colonial America was not a land that blessed by religious freedom. Yes, the Puritans (called Pilgrims) came to these shores so that they could freely practice their religion. But ironically it was woe to anyone who did not practice their faith.
Religious freedom in the original 13 Colonies – did not get off to a good start! For example laws passed by the Puritans in Massachusetts in 1644 required exile of Anabaptists, fined ship’s captains for bringing Quakers to Massachusetts and called for whipping and assigning to prison with hard labor any Quakers who gained entry to the colony. The Connecticut “Code of 1650” had as its opening statement: “Whosoever shall worship a God other than the Lord shall be put to death”.
Although less extreme, lack of religious freedom was the norm in most other colonies. The “state church” of England was carried over via the founding charters of the American colonies. Residents of a colony, by decree, were to be Anglican church members just as all English citizens were. Nine of the thirteen original colonies had charters from England that established the Anglican church as the “state church” of the colony.
The most fertile seeds for the concept and adoption of “Christian” religious freedom in the 13 Colonies were planted in Rhode Island and in Pennsylvania. Roger Williams who spilt from the Puritans, founded Rhode Island with some religious freedom protections. Even greater religious toleration was guaranteed in the Pennsylvania charter given to William Pitt, a Quaker. (The King granted that because he owed William Pitt’s uncle big time.)
That is kind of how things started in the colonies. State churches being funded by assessments on the population and fostering discriminatory practices. But with time and the influx of settlers from throughout Europe, with their varied Christian denominational backgrounds, religious diversity became infused into the population. Further, the spirit of individualism and the rigorous pursuit of individuals and families to carve out a living, trumped the snobbish conventions required for societal acceptance. Thus, families and individuals in America were more likely to be respected and accepted for what they did rather than for where they came from or what they believed.
That brings us to the end of Episode 1 of “Freedom of Religion” in America. But how did we come from this rocky start to gain our prized Freedom of Religion in the United States? We will begin to find out in Episode 2 as we join the 13 “independent” Colonies beginning to think about banding together to collectively challenge, King George and Britain – the Mother Country over economic issues and the abuse of other rights of “Englishmen”. Log on to learn what happens in Freedom of Religion -Episode 2.
(note the above is the “concise” version of early colonial events for a more complete version see Episode 1- full version.)
Episode 1 (full version) –Arrival of the Pilgrims and the Establishment of the Colonies
Religious intolerance before the founding of the United States was, with few exceptions, the norm throughout the early history of “civilized” people. Religious intolerance was typically integrally related to the political and military subjugation of one people by another empire or country. Religious observances by the conquered people were often forbidden or abolished by the conquering country because of the political threat they could present to the control of the country and not because of a desire to “convert” the conquered. This was not always the case. The spread of Islam was religiously motivated as well as politically motivated. The conquered peoples were generally forced to follow the religion of their conquerors. The Romans on the other hand allowed concurred peoples to maintain their religious observances as long as they also “respected the Roman Gods” – the Jewish people, however, were granted an exemption. Another unusual exception was Akbar (a Muslim ruler) who allowed the Hindus in India to maintain their religious worship. He found this was advantageous in keeping his empire peaceful.
However, more germane to the consideration of the “right” of freedom of religion in America were the internal events in countries in Europe following the Reformation. There were struggles against religious persecution and the freedom to practice a religion by many Christian sects. The Moravians struggled against counter reformation governments in Eastern Europe, the Huguenots were persecuted by the Catholic French Government, the Irish Catholics struggled against England, and of course the Puritans had to escape the dictates of Anglican State Church of England. All of these struggles helped develop the concept of the individual’s right to freedom of religion and to a degree helped ensure that “freedom of religion” was a right that came to be included in America’s Bill of Rights. However, a common misconception is that Colonial America was a land that promoted and supported “Freedom of Religion”. The Puritans (called Pilgrims) came to the unsettled American shores so that they could freely practice their religion but they did not endorse the concept of “freedom of religion”. The Puritans escaped their religious persecution but they did not allow “freedom of religion” in their new lands.
Founding of the 13 Colonies – One of our most prized freedoms in the United States is the Freedom of Religion. How did we come to have that freedom? A common misunderstanding, based on the well known flight of the Puritans (Pilgrims) to avoid religious persecution in England, is that religious freedom was present here in America from the outset and that its incorporation in the Bill of Rights was just a formal recognition of its long term existence. Well, surprise!! The Pilgrims (who actually were of the Puritan religious sect) did not support religious toleration at all, much less religious freedom. Laws were passed by the Puritans in Massachusetts in 1644 which required exile of Anabaptists and laws were passed which fined ship’s captains for bringing in Quakers to Massachusetts and for whipping and assigning to prison with hard labor any Quakers who managed to gain entry to the colony. The New England Puritan settlers had very strict laws in their communities requiring adherence to religious and moral precepts of their sect. Fines or harsh punishments were invoked for not attending church. The “Code of 1650” established by the colony of Connecticut had as its opening statement: “Whosoever shall worship a God other than the Lord shall be put to death”
The colonists also certainly did not foster the concept of separation of church and state as evidenced in the “immediate act” they passed to govern themselves, which stated: “We the undersigned, who for the glory of God, the advancement of the Christian faith and the honor of our native land have undertaken to found the first colony on these remote shores, do agree in this document, by solemn and mutual consent before God, to band together in a body politic in order to govern ourselves ——-.” Everything the early Puritan settlers did centered on their religious beliefs.
Although the details were different and less extreme, the same lack of religious freedom and religious toleration was the norm in most of the other colonies. The concept of “state churches” or “established” churches was transplanted to many of the American colonies from Europe, where many countries (France, Russia, Greece, Germany, Spain, etc.) had state churches at one time. The governments of these countries financially supported, legislated for and protected these “state churches”. Citizens of these countries were born into church membership just as they were born into citizenship. Nine of the thirteen original colonies carried over this concept by way of their charters form England and thus had “established state churches” during the colonial period.
Most of the original colonies were “Crown Colonies”, that is colonies authorized under the auspices of the King of England. England at this period in history was Anglican (Church of England also now referred to as Episcopalian) and thus the official “state church” of these colonies (including 5 southern colonies) was established by charter as Anglican. Those people who arrived in the colonies and did not practice the “state religion” suffered prejudice, persecution, and discredit. Basically they were regarded as second class citizens.
Even the colony of Maryland, often thought of as a haven for Roman Catholics within the Colonies, as it was founded by Roman Catholics (the Calverts), was chartered as an Anglican colony. Catholics although prevalent were denied the right to vote. Even an Act that sounded good and for which Maryland has been recognized as a leader in religious toleration, the “Maryland Toleration Act” passed by the protestant majority legislature in 1649 was not very progressive with regard to religious freedom. That Act allowed other religious groups to exist and worship in the colony but retained the Colonies right to withdraw or limit that permission, which it did. “From 1654 to 1661 and from 1692 to the end of the Revolutionary period, Maryland, in fact nullified its Toleration Act.”
The most fertile seeds for the concept and adoption of “Christian” religious freedom in America were planted in Rhode Island and in Pennsylvania. Roger Williams, a puritan minister, upon arrival in Boston in 1631, began zealous pursuit of “purifying” the Puritans from association with the King of England and the charters under which they operated. Puritans were called and were by definition, “Separatists”, as they had separated themselves in England from the Anglican “state church”. Williams, however, felt that the charter under which these colonists operated violated the Separatist ideal and he continually ran afoul of the neophyte Puritan religious and Civil establishment, including the Plymouth Colony where he initially was favorably received and assisted in ministry. In addition to separatism he began to speak out for individual religious freedom. He believed that civil magistrates should not have the authority to punish citizens for “Sabbath-breaking, false worship, and blasphemy, and that every individual should be free to follow his own convictions in religious matters”. After 5 years, in 1636, he left Massachusetts and founded the Providence Plantation (Rhode Island) which guaranteed freedom of belief (in a Christian sect) to all, (except outspoken atheists and Roman Catholics). Later Roman Catholics were permitted in his Rhode Island Colony. In 1651 England claimed the right to “govern” Rhode Island and in 1663 granted a charter to the Rhode Island and Providence Plantations which acknowledged Rhode Island’s religious freedom practices.
Unlike Rhode Island’s religious tolerance “experiment” developing out of conflict over a civil principle (granting of charters), the Pennsylvania colony was expressly formed to allow freedom of religion. Pennsylvania was established as a “land grant” colony to satisfy a debt owed by the King of England to William Pitt’s father, not as a “crown” colony. Thus, Pitt’s objective to create a colony that allowed for freedom of religion (due to his desire to protect himself and fellow Quakers from persecution) was able to be achieved free of the Anglican “state church” requirement. As a result Pennsylvania became the seat of religious toleration (of Christian sects) within the colonies, welcoming the entire spectrum of sects and mainline Christian churches, from Moravians to Roman Catholics.
Despite the “official state church” concept carried over from England and pervading most of the American colonies, the influx of settlers from throughout Europe with their varied religious backgrounds infused religious diversity into the population throughout the colonies. Further the spirit of individualism and the rigorous pursuit of individuals and families to carve out a living, trumped the snobbish “European conventions” required for societal acceptance. Thus, families and individuals in America were more likely to be respected and accepted for what they did rather than for where they came from or what they believed.
That brings us to the end of Episode 1 of “Freedom of Religion”. Episode 2 picks up as the 13 “independent” Colonies began to think about joining together to collectively challenge, King George and Britain – the Mother Country over economic issues and the abuse of other rights of “Englishmen”. Tune in or log on to learn what happens in Episode 2.