Religious Freedom or Protectionism in America
Religious Freedom….Just saying those two words can get you in a heated argument, an invitation to a call to worship, or a lesson on the Constitution. It’s a broad term that used to fight many battles, proclaim differentiation between groups, and to provide talking points for politicians. In America, it’s historically viewed as a cornerstone of our nation and is lauded as something great and ironclad, but reality often reveals that the facts don’t support the narrative.
Our children are taught in the classroom that the Pilgrim’s came from Europe, landing on Plymouth Rock with their sights set on developing settlements with true religious freedom, where all citizens were free to practice the faith of their choice or no faith at all should they wish. This romantic notion sounds wonderful, almost utopian, but in fact is an utter falsehood. In reality these early Americans simple exchanged English religious tyranny for one of their own manifestation. Combine the longstanding arguments history has so often described that existed between the Catholics and Protestant, of which both groups voyaged to the colonies, with the Spanish and French settlements in the Caribbean and coastal areas of the land and it becomes easy to see that the term “freedom” was destined to be distorted.
Religion was the primary weapon of these early settlers and the records show hangings, executions, and other cruel punishments for being Catholic, Lutheran, Quaker, or even an opposing Protestant sect when encountered by a differing group. The Native Americans were also demonized using religion and the newcomers rationalized mistreating them because they were “savages.” Dissenting ideas on how to best worship their God or what types of policies the church would be responsible for and what the citizenry would be compelled to do all were part of sever acts of persecution by one group on another. These skirmishes went on throughout the 1600’s and into the 1700’s even permeating local laws and policies. The records show how local areas would ban one group from holding public office or having certain rights to insure that their religion was kept at the forefront and others virtually squashed.
Separation of Church and State
We often hear the term “separation of church and state,” and many people believe it to be part of the Constitution, however that isn’t the case. The First Amendment states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” but makes no rule or gives no guidance on how it was to be handled at local levels. The Founding Fathers may have been compliant in stopping a national religion such as one they had mostly escaped from in England, but failed to provide a true foundation for total religious freedom. The idea that America in its early days had the “intent” to be a Christian nation may have been the case, but there is no text to support that perception or give it any foundation for the future. Perhaps the fact that most of the colonists were Christians, albeit different branches of Christianity could be the reason why it was not further fleshed out. One interpretation could be that the new government would not favor a particular sect of Christianity over another.
Over time, religion, particularly Christianity has become embedded in American society and government to an extent that most people hardly imagine. If we stop and think about the tenants of our nation it will become evident that we are inundated with Christianity. “In God We Trust” is printed on our currency, “One Nation Under God” is part of the Pledge of Allegiance, many government meeting open with a prayer, up until the early 1960’s there was prayer in our school system, and the list goes on and on, despite the warnings put forth by James Madison, who consistently resisted attempts to blend Christianity in the government system. One sidebar to note is that the term “God” does not appear anywhere in the Constitution where the Articles of the Confederation imply a supreme being in the final paragraph with the phrase, “And Whereas it hath pleased the Great Governor of the World to incline the hearts of the legislatures we respectively represent in congress, to approve of, and to authorize us to ratify the said articles of confederation and perpetual union.” The Great Governor of the World can be none other than God or a God-like being.
Challenges to the Status Quo
So knowing what we have reviewed so far, the notion of “freedom of religion” has been widely abused in our history, despite the simplicity of the words written in the 1st Amendment. So now we fast-forward to the 20th century and apply what we know to the current state of affairs in the United States both socially and politically.
Christianity is being challenged from multiple directions simultaneously and it’s no longer the “default” religion of younger Americans. This lack of automatic members has eroded the rolls of many Christian churches. The youth of this nation are dramatically different than the prior generations and they have different expectations about what the world should offer them and how they should in turn interact with the world. Notice I say the world when discussing young people, because they are really the first generation with worldly views instead of American views. The influx of people from every nation across the globe has influenced their classroom environments with multiculturalism opening their minds to new languages, foods, practices, and religions. Christianity has done nothing to influence these younger people into becoming members until just recently when churches began changing long-established doctrines to accept people who in the past would not fit into their model. Gay marriage, homosexuality, divorce, transgenderism, and tobacco or alcohol use, are among many of the once taboo topics that are now being accepted by different Christian churches just to maintain their rolls.
Islam is growing rapidly across the globe, and it too has its own problems with infighting between the different sects, and what is seen as forced membership in many parts of the world. Yet it has made its way to America and in some cities is growing at an exponential pace, enough to cause panic to traditional Americans. We hear the cry against the influences of Islam daily in our media, but are they substantiated with our current laws is a point of contention. We have seen the Mormon religion growing both here and abroad at a rapid pace, with its strict doctrine of no tobacco or alcohol, a strong moral stance on family and childbearing, and a collective and inclusive structure. It stands in stark contrast to modern society, which offers any diversion a person can think of, no matter how dark or dirty they might seem. Again, more negative media and ridicule of this group, and they consider themselves Christian.
There are also many other established religions like Buddhism, Hindi, Taoism, and Judaism that still play prominent roles in the lives of many Americans. Yet, we see persecution of Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Hari Krishna’s on a daily basis. Also, we see the rise and resurgence of the ancient earth based religions such as Paganism, Druidism, Wiccan, and ancient iconic worship of Greek, Celtic, and Egyptian Gods and Goddesses. These groups have been ridiculed and persecuted for over a thousand years, mainly because of the rise of Christianity, yet somehow they are attracting new followers and are growing rapidly in America.
Why Call it Protectionism ?
So, this changing landscape of religious practices is putting an obvious strain on the traditional groups of Americans, especially in politics. Just last week, two prominent Presidential candidates argued back and forth about which one was more Christian and debated bible passages. There were many negative and positive comments made about the narrative, but because it was a Christian debate, it was viewed as good political theater and given a pass. Consider if these same two candidates were arguing about a passage in the Koran or the Torah, holy books of Islam and Judaism, and ponder if the resulting comments and post-debate narrative would have been similar. Even further, what would the voting public have to say if one of the top candidates were to exclaim that they followed one of the ancient Pagan religions and campaigned on replacing the statement “In God We Trust” on our currency with “Once one recognizes the truth, one is then bound by its laws” instead. I’d gather that the political life of that person would quickly dissolve into abject nothingness.
One can surmise that this anchor Christianity has on America is in fact a reason for the resistance shown in the modern world. The texts of history has shown the cruelty done to others in the name of their God, the arguments about the Biblical text and the contents have always been debated, and the hypocrisy of many Christians who don’t practice what they preach are just a few of the reasons why other religious groups dislike Christianity. The control over the people comes through government and religion and if there are two topics people can find collective ground to fight against, those are it.
In summary, this religious freedom that we hold so dear is really a form of religious protectionism, one ingrained hundreds of years ago and still very strong today. Yes, each of us is free to practice our own chosen religion as long as we keep it to ourselves. There is a weakening to this national religious grip, but until another group tips the scales in their favor, it shall remain steadfast. The only way most can see it ending, bodes poorly for America as a nation.
Religion tends to bring out the passion in people and I'd like to say that this article is not intended to justify, lend credibility, push, or otherwise elevate any one religion over another. It is simply a look at history with an opinion of this writer interlaced. Please be civil in your comments and I look forward to hearing discussion on the topic.