On Religious Liberty

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Before Europeans came to America, Christian traditions and practices were well-rooted in Europe for over 1000 years. Catholicism was the predominant form of Christianity, at least until the Protestant Reformation of the early 1500s The Protestant Reformation was a major schism is Western Christianity that ultimately influenced America – both before and after independence.

Whereas the US Constitution’s First Amendment (ratified 1791) granted religious freedoms for individuals and that government cannot establish religious preferences, I content that American has a long history of battling this ideal by continually challenging it in the name of religious preference.

As the Puritans came to America (1630) seeking religious freedom in their disagreement with the Church of England (Anglicans), they established the Massachusetts Bay Colony in order to establish an orthodox community seeking to save their perception of Christianity from the wayward Anglicans. Puritans saw themselves as the chosen people – the new Adam and Eve with the American colonies being the New Jerusalem – the new Israel.

Yet, I think of Puritan Anne Hutchinson, a well-spoken and well-versed Puritan who Puritan leadership banished for heresy.

I think of Puritan Roger Williams, who Puritan leadership banished, so he went on to establish a new colony of Rhode Island.

In the 1740s, Rev. George Whitefield (an Anglican cleric) came to America. Without a congregation, Whitefield, a vibrant orator, travelled throughout the colonies preaching a message of rebirth and revival to large crowds in towns and fields. Not only did Whitefield help spread Methodism in America, Whitefield and his contemporaries fueled the Great Awakening in America.

Yet I think of those who opposed Whitefield – the Anglicans whose doctrine did not support rebirth and revival. – and the Puritans who challenged Whitefield cause his message conflicted with their orthodoxy.

I think of the Evangelical Baptists from Pennsylvania whose preaching in Anglican-centric Virginia spurred harassment and imprisonment.

I think of the religious freedom voices uniting with the freedom of liberty voices. There’s Thomas Jefferson who drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1777) supporting the non-Anglicans. Anglican opposition would prevent its passage for nine years. After this statute became law, it would serve as the framework for the First Amendment (ratified 1791).

As a young America grew, westward expansion followed. As people moved westward, revivals also moved across the frontier to save souls. Methodists rapidly grew in numbers. In time, they engaged is societal causes as orphanages, jails, caring for the poor, education, anti-slavery, and supporting women. They also saw education as an important role in creating good Christians for society. This activism favored a Protestant America in the New World.

Yet, I think of the large numbers of Catholics and Jews migrating to America in the mid-1800s – yet Protestants did not perceive Catholics and Jews as one of them. Protestants now became the persecutors of religious freedom by using schools to deliver anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic views.

I think how animosity between Protestant and Catholics would endure into the 1960s – and is same ways, still being present today.

The 20th and 21st Centuries provides the backdrop for increasing immigration of Muslims to America. Coupled with the presence of second generation Muslims, Pew Research projects Muslims will be the second largest group in America by 2040.

Yet I think about how anti-Islamic attitudes attempt to block the building of mosques in various communities. Let alone the general anti-Islamic rhetoric I hear in conversations and on the news.

I think about how political candidates who are Muslim face increased scrutiny – or as some politicians promote anti-Islamic and/0r pro-Christian views.

I think about today’s conservative Christians promoting anti-religious claims as the attempt to ingrain their beliefs through a variety of religious freedom laws throughout the country.

I think about the extremes attempting to establish a Christian America and those believing in the exclusion of religion from all aspects of public life.

I think about the growing number if Americans with either no religious preference or unabashed Atheism.

I think about the difference between school teaching religion and teaching about religion – with people worrying that the latter is about advocacy and indoctrination.

The US Constitution’s First Amendment is overtly clear. Yet, American has a persistent history of challenging the First Amendment in the name of their religious preference – a history of religious freedom advocates turning into inhibitors of religious freedom. Although the First Amendment has endured, I wonder if people understand it.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

38 thoughts on “On Religious Liberty

  1. “The more things change the more they stay the same!” What a wonderful review of religious history. I feel like our Puritan roots never quite disappear. The battle fields of religion continue to march forward, and “we” wonder why our youth want so little to do with traditional faith practices. So much talk today about tribalism and I think religion or lack thereof binds people to their particular tribe and sadly all too often justifies taking aim at others as outsiders. Sandwiched into your excellent survey there were the Plymouth Brethren, a very conservative evangelical Christian movement originating in Ireland. My great grandparents brought that with them when they emigrated to America from Scotland and it influenced my family for a couple of generations anyway. I’m so frustrated with the current evangelical movement…but I understand it very well. I really enjoyed reading this post, Frank. Years ago I wrote my Master’sThesis exploring some of these themes. It’s fascinating to me!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Debra,
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts here. After all, there is so much to say. I like your point about tribalism as religion and politics are two prime examples of that. Oh yes – no need to learn – just follow the group because they know what is best! … and it seems your opening line goes well with this post!

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Congratulations on a concise and informative piece on a very topical subject. I do not envy the courts, school districts, or other civic bodies that have to deal with these issues.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Gary,
      Thanks for the kind words. Sometimes public agencies have a tendency to bring problems on themselves. After all, consider what school boards can do if a particular group gets a majority on the school board! Nonetheless, it seems enough people like to view the First Amendment through their own prism.


  3. Too many people believe religious freedom means the right to impose their religious views on everyone else. The United States is not a Christian nation. There are too many Americans who believe and are taught history that is not accurate. For example, that Puritans cherished religious freedom, when as you point out, the Puritans desired a theocracy and believed their way was the only correct way. And there are narrow-minded people who do not understand the difference between teaching religion and teaching about the history and culture of various religions. Well, I’ll stop there before I go on about banning books instead of discussing them, and on and on. 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  4. And I think that religion is a big business and has nothing to do with faith anymore. If it ever really did… Been causing wars since the beginning of time.

    This was a most interesting read, Frank!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Your post reinforces my belief that Religious Liberty as applied to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution should mean the right to worship whatever you want, with whomever you want, on whatever privately owned property you want. Nothing more.


      • Jim, You make an excellent point, especially considering the long history of governments requiring parents under the threat of fines, prison, or death, to register their children at birth as {tax paying} members of the established State religion. Utilizing your reply, along with Frank’s, I’m amending my AFA comment on 4-19-18 to the following:

        “Religious Liberty as applied to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution should mean, FIRST and FOREMOST, the right to choose whether or not to worship. For those who choose to worship, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution should guarantee people the right to worship whatever they want – with no preferential treatment by the government toward any religion or set of beliefs, with whomever they want, on whatever privately owned property they want – as given permission by the owner.”

        Liked by 1 person

      • Jim,
        Thanks for the great question. In my opinion, the First Amendment unquestionably protects the right not to worship. On a side note, you will enjoy a future series I have in the works … all most done, and they will be done on consecutive days …. (although the format will require your patience) …. 😉


        • I’m looking forward, with patience, to your series, Frank. I have always respected your perspective on life’s issues. In this case, i.e. “freedom of religion”, it will be particularly interesting to me. There was a time not long ago when I thought the First Amendment was the bedrock of American justice and the least likely of principles to be challenged. No longer. The rule of law is being seriously undermined by the current administration and I can readily imagine that “freedom of religion” might eventually be interpreted as category-specific.

          Liked by 1 person

  6. Done – I’m adding your words, with the hope that they will reinforce the existing wall preventing a majority of Supreme Court Justices from ruling that Religious Liberty gives pizza parlors the right to deny service to customers on the bases of the owner’s religious beliefs.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. People only see what they want to see and what supports their opinions. beliefs.
    How many remember/admit that in those early colonies, only those who were property owners and members in good standing with the church were allowed to vote? And of course as male head of households.
    People laugh if it’s brought up the when JFK ran, many said if he won, the Pope would actually rule the US. (Upon his election, the world didn’t end, though.) Or that for a long time a “mixed marriage” was one between Jewish and Christian partners.
    Comparative religion courses used to be taught in our childhood S. Baptist church – quite neutral information. Looking for similarities and common “truths” among religions in those was a good path to provide a feeling of “alike, but different” which added to a sense of unity as a larger group working together as a community. Maybe this is what is shown during big catastrophic events were everyone is reduce to basic human elements – like survival – and “we’ll only make it if we get past differences and work together.”
    But back then it was etiquette that during polite social functions, enlightened and educated individuals did not bring up money, politics, or religion. Manners and religion’s code of conduct does have some plus sides.
    It may have varied between regions/cities, but there wasn’t much conflict/animosity between those of different religions where I grew up – mostly due to parents as well as the broader community. It’s still pretty cooperative here now, but there’s always the odd (loud) ones who don’t represent the larger group. Still, the “tribal” thinking is destructive if all groups aren’t able to get past their own cultural/religious beliefs and opening accept others as “alike, but different” and “we disagree, but can still be friends”. Sometime the ancient/traditional mandates of religions override commonsense.
    As usual thoughtful post, Frank

    Liked by 1 person

      • Yes. Interesting to note is that the early arrivers/settlers, Puritans, Pilgrims, etc – came to be allowed to live as they wished and to worship as they please…in their own groups. Others were free to move on. These were colonies, not the United States at that time. Freedom – and acceptance of religions of others came later. Church of LDS had to keep moving waaaay out there.
        History is a collection of stories. More should take dive into the entire stream of those days past – to neutrally view facts and to remember to view events in context of the time and society’s beliefs of that era.
        The preamble to the US Constitution includes the phrase “to form a more perfect union” which I have always considered acknowledgement by the founders that what was being created might not be “perfect”, but a conscious attempt to move in that direction…and it would be a progression over a long period of time. Have to start somewhere. Would be nice now if people would try to get along and live and let live. …like the Founders intended.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Here, here!!! As I progress forward through life encumbered by all of these ideologies, I can only feel peace in not embracing any, and accepting all.


  9. Thoughtful and thought-provoking post, Frank.

    I’m convinced religion is at the root of most evil, but what do I know?

    It seems to me that those who seem to proclaim the loudest about religious liberty (for example, those who whine and complain about taking prayer out of school or the “war on Christmas”) are the same people who would have fits if true religious liberty were allowed. Using the prayer in school example again, how many of those people who are convinced (through brainwashing) that there is a war on Christmas would approve of having a Wiccan lead a prayer in their child’s school? None, probably.

    Liberty is all well and good until it’s someone else’s religion.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Robin,
      Absolutely … one’s view of religious freedom depends on the lens they use to filter information – and yes – it’s all about the effect on them. Then again, I’ve tried to say that’s the way it has always been.

      Liked by 1 person

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