Religious Freedom In The United States

Religious Freedom In The United States

Today, we have fairly absolute religious freedom in the United States. It is enshrined in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. This wasn’t always the case. For hundreds of years before the founding of this country religious intolerance was the rule both in Europe an. Fundamentally, the Thirty Years War was fought over religion spreading death and devastation throughout Middle Europe. The Inquisition in Europe institutionalized the persecution of Jews, Protestants and Moslems.

Gordon Dickson, the well-known science fiction writer based his future world of the Final Encyclopedia on Splinter Cultures. After reading a couple of his books it came to me that he used the our world as his model. Think about the 13 colonies. Most of them were founded by various religious, political or national groups.  Rather th13 Coloniesan religious freedom within each colony, they found that separation was their answer.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded by Puritans who were fleeing persecution for not conforming to the Church of England. However, they were certainly the most intolerant of the colonies, going as far as hanging Quakers for living in the colony. Rhode Island was co-founded by Roger Williams, a Baptist theologian, who was fleeing persecution in Massachusetts.

The Dutch founded New York. New Jersey was founded partly by the English from New England and the Dutch from New York. They were Baptists, Episcopalians and Quakers.

Delaware was founded by Swedes. Maryland was founded by Catholics. Pennsylvania was founded by Quakers led by William Penn. Carolina was founded by royalists who were granted the colony by King Charles I. Eventually it was split into North and South Carolina. Georgia was originally a penal colony. All of them were splinter cultures. Each represented a narrow slice of the Old World that they had come from.

Maryland which was founded by the Catholic Lord Baltimore in 1634 was the first colony to enact a religious tolerance law in 1649. It was overturned by Protestants in the Maryland Assembly. In 1658 it was reinstated and was in force for over 30 years until 1692 when it was again rescinded at the behest of the Protestants in the Assembly. Full religious freedom would not be restored in Maryland until the American Revolution.

The modern concept of religious freedom as the union of freedom of belief and freedom of worship with the absence of any state-sponsored religion, originated in the United States. In 1779 Thomas Jefferson in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom wrote:

“[N]o man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

These concepts were later enshrined in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights which guarantees Religious Freedom in America: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Originally, the First Amendment applied only to the federal government. A number of the states effectively had established churches when the First Amendment was ratified, with some remaining into the early nineteenth century. Over the history of the United States this has been expanded by the Supreme Court to include all governments throughout the land.

Many liberals in America have interpreted the First Amendment as freedom from religion, setting up an absolute wall of separation between church and state. They cite Thomas Jefferson’s personal letter to the Connecticut church leaders in 1801. On the other hand conservatives assert that the First Amendment only forbids the establishment of a state religion not the public acknowledgement of God. According to the Pew Research Center some 67% of all Americans view the United States as a “Christian Nation”.

With all of the talk of Religious Freedom in the United States it has been barely 50 years since John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic was elected President. During the campaign he made a speech before Protestant clergymen in Houston defending his beliefs and independence from his church in making national decisions. It was a masterful defense of Religious Freedom in the United States. Take the time to listen to it for it lays out the basic premises of our beliefs as Americans.




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