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 History/Culture: Being Free To Be Religious

SpiritualityBy Howard Bess

Religious freedom is an American invention. We enjoy the freedom to pursue our own peculiar religion; but we are fearful of granting that same freedom to everyone else. Strange but true. While people came to the American continent for many reasons, one prominent reason was to find a place to escape religious persecution. Sadly, those who were persecuted because of their faith soon became the persecutors.

The prime example was Roger Williams. He was a Congregational clergyperson, who became a dissenter and had the audacity to declare himself a Baptist. He was banned from Massachusetts. Eventually he made his way to what is now Providence, Rhode Island. There he was joined by others in establishing the unthinkable. In 1636 Rhode Island became a colony in which religious freedom was to be practiced. Even the despised Quakers and Jews were welcomed. Rhode Island is held up as an American ideal, the birthplace of American religious freedom. However, the folk from Providence had their religious hang-up as well. Roman Catholics were denied the right to vote.

The free exercise of religion became a major barrier to the formation of the 13 colonies into a new nation. There had been examples of nations in which religious tolerance was practiced, but the free exercise of religion was new on the face of the earth. The abiding problem was the tension between the desire for religious freedom and the hesitancy to grant that same freedom to others. ...

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James Madison was responsible for pulling together words that were acceptable to all. They are the heart of the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or the free exercise thereof.” Today the words establishment and free exercise are central to all religious freedom discussions. James Madison’s greatest ally was a fire brand Baptist preacher by the name of Isaac Backus from Massachusetts. Backus knew full well the experience of being a part of a persecuted religious minority. He wanted free exercise.

Many Americans recognize the First Amendment as the basis of the “wall of separation between church and state.” These words from Thomas Jefferson are firmly stuck in the minds of Americans. However, we have been arguing the meaning of those words for over 230 years.

The First Amendment Center is totally dedicated to the defense of the First Amendment and to the exploration of its meaning. The FAC has offices in both Washington DC and at Vanderbilt University. The First Amendment Center has been doing polling since 1997. In their most recent poll, they found some surprising beliefs. About one-third of the people polled do not believe the First Amendment establishes a clear separation of church and state. Over one-half of those polled believe that the United States was established as a Christian nation. Somehow millions of Americans can ignore the facts. Not once does the U.S. Constitution or any of its amendments use the words Christian or Christianity. The only times the word religion is used in the Constitution is in the prohibition of a religious test to run for public office and in the First Amendment that prohibits any limit on the free practice of religion. Yet 53 percent of Americans somehow believe the United States was established as a Christian nation.

It is true that we as a nation have struggled to live up to our ideals. The Baptists and the Quakers suffered severe persecution in Colonial days. The Roman Catholics and Mormons were the targets of persecution in the 19th century, and the Jehovah Witnesses and Christian Scientists were demonized in the 20th century. Acceptance and assimilation is not easy, but as we have learned, freedom is not an easy path. Muslims have become the challenge of the 21st century.

The United States has a history of accommodating religion. Clergy have never been subject to military draft. Churches (like other not-for-profit organizations) are tax exempt. Gifts given to churches are tax exempt. Churches do not pay property taxes on properties that are used for religious or charitable purposes. Court rulings have upheld these kinds of accommodations to religion. They do not violate the wall of separation.

During the George W. Bush administration, the president established, not by law but executive order, the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Large sums of money were diverted from social service programs administered by the federal government into religious organizations. Major constitutional questions were raised about the Faith-based programs. The administration of Barak Obama is still in the process of sorting through the rules that should be put in place for the continuation of the program.

The path on which James Madison and the First Amendment set the nation seemed clear. The free exercise of religion and the wall of separation seemed plain enough. Today it seems more like a story which has an endless number of chapters. Are we ready for the Mosque built next door?



The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His email address is [email protected]


[20 November 2010]

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