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Let us not take our religious freedom for granted.

A few years ago, I addressed my Unitarian Universalist congregation on Independence Day weekend, taking up the topic of religious freedom. Some diaries and news reports over the last week or so reminded me of this piece, and of the often hard-won freedom of religion that we enjoy in this country.

Please follow me below the fold for my remarks (edited to remove some congregation-specific references).

In Unitarian Universalism, we celebrate something called Flower Communion, a lovely ceremony of sharing our varied and beautiful gifts, represented by flowers. It was started by Norbert Čapek, who is probably best known for the legacy of the flower communion. What I wish we knew him best for, however, was his fight against religious intolerance, both within the Baptist denomination for whom he served as minister, and later in his homeland of Czechoslovakia, where he was arrested and subsequently placed in a Dachau concentration camp. Čapek’s story is, sadly, only one of the billions of stories of people who have died at the hands of their oppressors, not because of crimes committed but because of their religious beliefs.

Let us not take our religious freedom for granted.

We all know the stories of Christians being persecuted in early Rome, of the witches killed in Europe during the Burning Times, of the many saints martyred for their religion, of the horrors against Muslims during the Crusades, of the strife that tore apart England and France during the Tudor reigns of Henry, Mary, and Elizabeth, and more recently the Holocaust, the genocides in Rwanda and Serbia, the strife over Tibet and the Falun Gong in China. We have our own history of religious persecution – from the excommunication of Anne Hutchinson in Massachusetts and the "Quaker problem" in New England, to the establishment of Catholic and Jewish communities in the colonies. That this part of American history is not more bloody is nothing short of amazing.

Let us not take our religious freedom for granted.

In 1568, King John Sigismund of Transylvania was facing a four-sided war within his own country over religion, as well as pressure from other parts of what is now Hungary to become incorporated into the Ottoman Empire. In order to resolve some of these differences and protect his subjects, King John issued the Edict of Torda, famous for its standing as the first proclamation for religious tolerance. The edits reads, in part,

His Majesty . . . reaffirms that in every place the preachers shall preach and explain the Gospel each according to his understanding of it, and if the congregation like it, well, if not, no one shall compel them for their souls would not be satisfied, but they shall be permitted to keep a preacher whose teaching they approve.

Therefore, none of the superintendents or others shall abuse the preachers, no one shall be reviled for his religion by anyone, according to the previous statutes, and it is not permitted that anyone should threaten anyone else by imprisonment or by removal from his post for his teaching, for faith is the gift of God, this comes from hearing, which hearing is by the word of God.

Just fifty years later, Puritans in England, longing for their own freedom to "preach and explain the Gospel according to his understanding of it,",sought that precious freedom by way of the New World. We are all familiar with the establishment of Plymouth Colony, and the subsequent landings of the Winthrop Fleet and other groups, searching for their own promised land.

It is, unfortunately, important to note, however, that universal religious tolerance was not what the Pilgrims had in mind. John Winthrop held the Puritan belief that all nations had a covenant with God, and that because England had violated its religious covenant, the Puritans must leave the country. Winthrop claimed that the Puritans must forge a new, special agreement with God, like that between God and the people of Israel. The Puritans believed that by purifying Christianity in the New World, his followers would serve as an example to the Old World for building a model Protestant community.

Excommunication and other harsh punishments on the unforgiving New England shore were not the model other groups were looking for, and indeed, as more and more people settled in the New World, more and more the question of religious diversity was at the forefront. Where race and nations of origin were the divisive issue in the 19th and 20th centuries, religious affiliation was the divisive issue of the 17th and 18th centuries. At that time, the lines between the sects were strong – Quakers were ostracized in Puritan communities, and the Protestants faced off both with Catholics for their adherence to the papacy and with Jews for their denial of Jesus as the Messiah. By the middle of the 18th century, American colonists found ways to accommodate each other – William Penn established a safe haven for Quakers in Pennsylvania, Jews established their first temple without fear of reprisal in New Amsterdam, and Maryland became a home for Catholics.

As Diana Eck points out in her book A New Religious America:

Some colonies had one established or state-supported religion, and others did not. Some were tolerant of what they called dissenters, those who were not of the majority religion, and others were not. As we look back to those controversies more than three centuries ago, it is important to realize that this was not an argument between Christians and secularists, for the 20th century notion of secularism wasn’t part of the discourse. This was, rather, an intense religious argument in which both establishment and toleration were articulated in theological terms. Both the Puritans who argued for an exclusively Christian society, a biblical commonwealth, and Rhode Island founder Roger Williams, who argued for ‘soul liberty’, did so on biblical grounds.

By the time the first and second Continental Congresses were convened in the 1770s the belief that civic authority comes from man and moral authority comes from the Divine was so powerful an idea that Thomas Jefferson, a self-professed Unitarian, ensured that this belief was included in the Declaration of Independence.

Jefferson first mentions this idea with perhaps the most famous clause of the document, "all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights". He continues, "That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed." Not from God.

And yet – the declaration finishes with this remarkable oath: "And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."

From very the start of our nation, we see a direct link between church and state. And yet religious liberty was among the most hotly contested topics in the formation of the Union. Some insisted (and some still do) that the Constitution should include wording such as this, suggested by Connecticut’s William Williams:

We the people of the United States, in a firm belief of the being and perfections of the one living and true God, the creator and supreme Governor of the World, in His universal providence and the authority of His laws; that He will require of all moral agents an account of their conduct, that all rightful powers among men are ordained by, and mediately derived from God, therefore in a dependence on His blessing and acknowledgement of His efficient protection in establishing our Independence, whereby it is becomes necessary to agree upon and settle a constitution of federal government for ourselves, and in order to form a more perfect union....etc.

Williams also believed officeholders should be compelled to ascribe to these words, thus creating a religious test. He believed that if a man could not swear allegiance to Christianity, he should not be in government.

Fortunately for us, no such conditions were included. John Leland, a Baptist minister from Massachusetts, responded: "If government can answer for individuals at the Day of Judgment, let men be controlled by it in religious matters; otherwise let men be free."

To ensure that religious freedom would stand as an ‘inalienable right’, the framers wrote as its first Amendment in the Bill of Rights: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

In 1876, famed orator Robert Ingersoll noted of this bold act,

Our fathers founded the first secular government; the first government that said every church has exactly the same rights and no more; every religion has the same rights and no more. In other words, our fathers were the first men who had the sense, had the genius, to know that no church should be allowed to have a sword; that is should be allowed only to exert its moral influence.

Let us not take our religious freedom for granted.

The Constitution’s ratification did not stop the discussion; far from it. Public discourse continued as religious groups and civic leaders alike tried to frame the intent and spirit of the First Amendment. Jefferson, responding to concerns from the Danbury, Connecticut, Baptists, wrote:

Believing that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their Legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.

Alexis de Tocqueville found this newly defined wall of separation remarkable. Tocqueville found, in his interviews of American clergy, that "all attributed the peaceful dominion that religion exercises in their country principally to the complete separation of church and state." He also found, to his surprise, that severing the ties between church and state seemed to make religion stronger rather than weaker. Eck explains: "Unlike in France, where the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom seemed to march in opposite directions, in America they seemed ‘intimately united’ and reigned in common over the same country."

Let us not take our religious freedom for granted.

Fifty years later, Fredrick Douglass noted that this common path that religion and government shared was a healthy entanglement:

We should welcome men of every shade of religious opinion, as among the best means of checking the arrogance and intolerance which are the almost inevitable concomitants of general conformity. Religious liberty always flourishes best amid the clash and competition of rival religious creeds.

It was not until the 20th century, when decades marred with civil war, battles over immigration, a difficult transition from an agrarian to an industrial economy, and involvement in several international wars, that the ‘wall of separation’ became nearly impenetrable.

In 1947’s Everson v. Board of Education decision, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black wrote:

The ‘establishment of religion’ clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another... No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever from they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect 'a wall of separation between Church and State.

Suddenly, we had a clear definition of that wall of separation. It was, apparently, a 15-foot tall brick wall with steel reinforcements and electrified barbed wire on top. Which is what many hoped for.

And yet, this seems contrary to what the founders may have intended.

So is the "wall of separation" a myth? Philip Hamburger thinks so; in his book Separation of Church and State, he says that the founders "no more wanted a separation of church and state than they wanted an establishment." The founders were not looking to restrict the role religion plays in people’s lives; rather they were looking to restrict the role established religions play in civic actions. The strongly-held belief in ‘inalienable rights’ as given by "Nature’s God" demanded of the founders that they ensure each would operate according to their conscience rather than from fear of condemnation.

Hamburger argues that "no state or church can develop its laws and beliefs in a cultural vacuum, separate from the other institutions in society. Churches are distinct from states but are not entirely separate from states, and it is difficult to understand how they could be fully separated, unless either churches or states are completely abandoned."

Jon Meacham, in his book American Gospel, seems to agree.

Religion spares the life of the nation without strangling it. Belief in God is central to the country’s experience, yet for the broad center, faith is a matter of choice, not coercion, and the legacy of the founding is that the sensible center holds. It does so because the founders believed themselves at work in the service of both god and man, not just one or the other.

This model – an intertwined world of religion and government – serves us well in this incredibly more diverse world. Diana Eck points out that we are more religiously diverse than the founders ever expected; not only do we have Protestants and Catholics, we have Buddhists and Muslims and pagans and Taoists and even us Unitarian Universalists. Without this cultural, if not civic, model of religious freedom, we would not be able to operate in this 21st century global community.

Nor would the global community be able to operate. I’m not saying that religious oppression doesn’t still exist; we unfortunately see it all too often on the evening news. But the world is slowly changing. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, defines freedom of religion and belief as follows:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance.

The US, the UN, and ultimately most of the peoples of the world, have come to realize that we are what scholars refer to as homo religious: we are by nature inclined to look outside ourselves and beyond time and space to a divine power that creates, directs, and judges the world and our individual lives. "All men," said Homer, "need the gods." We live in a world where religion and government are inextricably linked. Despite the protections provided for in the First Amendment, or maybe because of them, we are still a nation closely tied to religion. No matter how hard we try to extricate God from our civic life, we can’t. Our patriotic tunes, our pledge of allegiance, our money, and even our emblem, all contain the word God. But thanks to Jefferson and the other founders, we are free to interpret that word "god" however we like, imbue it with whatever meaning speaks to us, or to ignore it if we so choose.

But our own religious freedom – and indeed, the entire first amendment – charges us to stand up to our government for what our spiritual beliefs say is right, without fear of reprisal.

In fact, we might take the first amendment as a directive - to speak freely, about everything, including religion. And I can't think of a better time for us to do so. In light of Beck and the deeply disturbing efforts to turn us into a theocracy, we must speak up.

We must not take our religious freedom for granted.

Now is the time for us to speak. And yet, it seems hard for us to make the point as clearly as the other side does. Why are we so reluctant to take  our values into the public square? Have we become so enamored of freedom, so oriented to individualism that we can find no cohesive center from which to speak? Why is it that Liberal Religion cannot find its prophetic voice?

If we are to speak up for religious freedom and for what, according to our conscience, is right, it is time to find our voice. We have a responsibility to ensure that the liberty of free religious expression stands – that we as a nation don’t favor one church, or one sect, over another... that our government does not carry out crimes against humanity ...and, that our civic leaders are held accountable for their actions, particularly when their actions are driven by religious intolerance.  

It is time to find our voice. In a talk in April 2006, Logos Institute executive director Helio Fred Garcia told us, "Words matter. Whoever controls the words controls the world." Our words have never been more important. We must speak, in a clear, clarion voice expressing our vision of freedom, liberty, and justice...for all.

It’s worth noting that religious freedom appears in the same amendment with other key freedoms: The entire amendment reads

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.

Let us find our voice. Let us not take our religious freedom for granted.

Originally posted to Words Matter. on Sat Feb 13, 2010 at 09:27 AM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  we have never actually HAD religious freedom (0+ / 0-)

    we have had religious best.  

    "Obama set his Phaser on stun and aimed at the GOP Retreat"

    by KnotIookin on Sat Feb 13, 2010 at 09:35:36 AM PST

  •  Pilgrims not Puritans - a very different group (0+ / 0-)

    and they did not tend to dress in the dour black of the Puritans, but more typical renaissance dress, which included colors.

    They had had religious freedom in Holland, but thought they could be back in an English speaking land and still have a certain amount of religious liberty in the New World.  

    That was the belief of many groups that came, but it was one not always maintained.   Thus the Quakers who founded Pennsylvania lost any remaining control because of the insistence of many on fighting Indians, certainly by the time of the French & Indian War.

    The Catholics who founded Maryland lost control of it to Anglicans.  Oh, and Lord Baltimore's Act of Toleration prescribed death to anyone who denied the Holy Trinity.  And it was not until the 1820s that anyone except a Christian could officially hold public office   (there had been a couple of exemptions, particularly in the militia), and then it was changed only for Jews.

    Even Pennsylvania required a belief in God.

    Of all the original 13, the only one that was always totally free on religion was Rhode Island.

    The practice in this nation often had religious imposition -  it might have been the insistence on using a Protestant bible in public schools - one thing that contributed to the growth of the Catholic School system.  It could be the use of overtly Christian prayer - usually Protestant - at official government functions.  IT could be the ongoing insistence of some local judges in place like NC that a witness be sworn on a Bible even if that person were Muslim, or Jewish (for whom only the first section of the Christian bible represents scripture) or anything else.

    Some of our founders were wise on this subject.  Some were less so, even intolerant.

    It is not an issue that has ever been fully resolved at a national level.

    do we still have a Republic and a Constitution if our elected officials will not stand up for them on our behalf?

    by teacherken on Sat Feb 13, 2010 at 09:47:22 AM PST

  •  The original idea of religious freedom was (0+ / 0-)

    that the like minded could gather together and worship as they chose, because, unless persuaded, that worship and togetherness had no coercive effect on others.

    The problem we have today is those who have determined that any coercion of others is acceptable if it forwards a religious belief which they have separately propounded. Their particular sectarian beliefs on this or that have in their minds become such universal 'truths' that they are not realized to be simply sectarian beliefs, and may therefore, unlike 'sectarian beliefs,' be imposed on others by any means possible or necessary. That is part of the struggle we all have politically now, where certain groups are determined to force their views into the law and make them enforceable intentionally and specifically against those who do not share those views, and to punish those who don't share those views.

  •  Thank you for this post. (0+ / 0-)

    This is the number one issue we face. I posted a diary concerning this today, Please visit when time allows.

  •  Native American (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    The Native American perspective on religious freedom in the U.S. is very different. American law regarding Indians is based on the Discovery Doctrine, a concept that indicates that Christian nations, such as the U.S. (Supreme Court's interpretation, not mine), have a right to rule all non-Christian nations.

    From 1884 to 1934, all American Indian religions were illegal.

    As examples of this take a look at Outlawing Indian Relgions,and Faith-Based Reservations.

  •  Ridiculous. (0+ / 0-)

    we are what scholars refer to as homo religious: we are by nature inclined to look outside ourselves and beyond time and space to a divine power that creates, directs, and judges the world and our individual lives.

    Scholars?Can't wait for them to isolate that particular gene.

    How can anyone speculate that it is "natural" when it has been culturally inflicted on virtually everyone on the planet?

    It's like saying that our lungs "by nature" contain ultrafine particles of metals produced by fossil fuel combustion.

    Hmmm... maybe.

    Or maybe -- just maybe -- it's because we have no choice but to breathe air heavily polluted with fossil fuel combustion.

    It is always to be taken for granted, that those who oppose an equality of rights never mean the exclusion should take place on themselves. -- Thomas Paine

    by teachme2night on Sat Feb 13, 2010 at 10:32:54 AM PST

  •  What the hell? (0+ / 0-)

    This model – an intertwined world of religion and government – serves us well in this incredibly more diverse world.

    Not according to Madison in his letter to Edward Livingston (available free on the web). Clearly, he thought government should have a large concrete wall of seperation between it and religion. Our government was founded upon the notion of "reason". Religion is NEVER reasonable. Which doesn't mean it has no function or benefits to society.

    You also forgot to mention the sacrifices of scientists by religion, all manner of scientists and practitioners of medicine.

    Last week saw the anniversary of the persecution and death by fire of Giordano Bruno (Feb. 11, 1600). His offense was stating that the earth revolved around the sun and refusing to recant, even though he knew his very life was on the line.

    Religious freedom in America can be traced directly to that singular act of courage.

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