Freedom of Religion on July 4, 1776?

Tomorrow, July 4th, 2013 is the 237th anniversary of the Continental Congress approval of the Declaration of Independence.  All over the United States, there will be displays of fireworks and other celebrations of this event which gave rise to what is the United States of America.

The Declaration of Independence lists many reasons why the representatives of the colonies decided to rebel against the British monarchy.  What is absent from that list is freedom of religion.  It does not appear, but, in this country, there are many who believe that one of the founding principles of this country in 1776 was this exact freedom.  I believe history actually shows differently.

Starting with the Puritans, the idea was for their establishment to be “a city on the hill” for Old England.  Oh, sure, the Puritans came to North America because they were persecuted for their theological positions, so they sought religious freedom for themselves.  But what is quite interesting is that they did not grant that freedom for anyone but themselves.

Those who disagreed with the theological and religious positions of the Puritans and their leaders were banned from the colony.  Just ask Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson if the Puritans believed in true religious freedom; they were banned from the Massachusetts Bay Colony and Rhode Island and First Baptist Church of Providence were created.

There is even one American historian, Dr. Alan Bearman, professor of history at Washburn University, who believes that it was never the Puritans intent to permanently stay in New England.  He contends that they wanted to demonstrate the proper relationship between church and state, “the city on the hill” (i.e., what they believed theologically being the beliefs to which the state and all citizens must adhere), and then go back and implement that structure in England.

All through the Colonial period, those who disagreed with the state church were persecuted.  Baptists routinely encountered this type of behavior.  Throughout this period, Catholics were statutorily discriminated against in matters of property and voting.  In Puritan Boston’s early days, Catholics and other “non-Puritans” were anathema and banned from the colony.  Between the years of 1659 and 1661, four Quakers were hanged for returning to Boston and standing up for their beliefs.

Even after the signing of the Declaration of Independence this type of discrimination and lack of religious freedom continued.  In Massachusetts, only Christians were allowed to hold public office, and Catholics were allowed to do so only after renouncing papal authority. In 1777, New York State’s constitution banned Catholics from public office (and would do so until 1806). In Maryland, Catholics had full civil rights, but Jews did not. Delaware required an oath affirming belief in the Trinity. Several states, including Massachusetts and South Carolina, had official, state-supported churches.  (http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/eighteen/ekeyinfo/sepchust.htm)

Virginia was an exception.  Through the leadership of John Madison and Thomas Jefferson, Virginia’s state constitution, in 1776, “exempted dissenters like the Baptists from paying taxes to support the Anglican clergy. That did not go far enough to satisfy Jefferson, so in 1779 he presented a bill to the state legislature guaranteeing full religious liberty to all Virginians—not merely tax exemptions to non-Anglicans—only to meet with resistance from those who deemed his measure too radical. Among them was Patrick Henry, who countered by proposing a “general assessment” on all citizens to support Christianity itself as the established religion of Virginia.” 

Furthermore, Madison argued that to promote any religion was outside the proper scope of limited government. Even for Virginia’s government to sponsor all Christian religions, as Henry proposed, would establish a dangerous precedent, for “Who does not see that the same authority, which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?” (ibid.)

Even then, it wasn’t until 1786 that Virginia finally passed legislation that, once and for all, ended a state established religion.

Even during the days of debate over the wording of the United States Constitution, there was heated debate over the issue of religious freedom.  One group of “critics of the proposed Constitution warned that abolishing religious tests would allow Jews, Catholics, and Quakers—even “pagans, deists, and Mahometans [Muslims]”—to hold federal office, perhaps even to dominate the new national government. And many evangelical religious leaders, like the group of Presbyterian elders who took their concerns to George Washington in 1789, objected that the Constitution failed to acknowledge ‘the only true God and Jesus Christ, whom he hath sent.’” (ibid.)

So, history shows that the prominent view of the idea of religious freedom was for those who came and established themselves as the leaders of the colony/state; all others must adhere to their view or experience detrimental consequences ranging from forced financial payments to punitive legislation all the way to possible incarceration such as some of my Baptist forebears experienced.

It was not until the U.S. Constitution was ratified that this tide began to truly turn, but even then, it took many years for it to be totally eradicated, at least legislatively, if not in the mindset of all the citizenry.

So, while you are celebrating the day which is considered the birthday of this country called the United States of America, remember that the idea of freedom of religion was not what it is today.  And, even though the text of the Declaration of Independence mentions rights granted by the Creator, in practice these rights did not include true freedom of religion except for those who agreed with the established church.

I believe it imperative that we do not go back to the mindset and view of “religious freedom” as found in during the colonial period and early years of this country though I do believe there are those alive today who would like to see their brand of Christianity be the controlling force on our government today.

May these find no success in that endeavor.

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