How Freedom of Religion Began in America
WRITTEN BY: David Baxter and Dave Boyd
When it comes to sacred cows, there is one heifer in our foundational American pasture that you just don't tip: Freedom of Religion. Now, how exactly you go about keeping that cow upright, or fenced in or separate from the bull that might deposit its own interest and mix up the breeds is up for discussion and has been long before the founding of our country.
There are two prevailing schools of thought regarding the rightful place of religion in America. On one hand, there is the notion that we are--or, at least, were--a Christian nation. Some conservative organizations urge us to return to those principles of faith upon which this nation was founded. On the other, we have institutions set on safeguarding us from religion. Challenging public displays of the Ten Commandments or prayer at high school sporting events, their stated mission is “protecting the constitutional principle of the separation of church and state.”
Of course, if that principle appears in the U.S. Constitution, that precise language does not. The phrase comes from correspondence Thomas Jefferson addressed to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802. In the letter, Jefferson offered his own commentary on the First Amendment, stating that it built “a wall of separation between Church and State.” With regard to religion, the First Amendment itself specifically guarantees two things: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, and Congress shall make no law prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
So which is it, freedom of or freedom from? To properly understand the tension that exists between these two mindsets, one must consider the words of the founders themselves. To
comprehend where we are and how we got here, we first must grasp who the founders envisioned we might become when this nation was conceived.
Our founding fathers were religious men. Deists, more than Christians, but certainly guided by Judeo-Christian thought. In fact, John Adams wrote, in 1798, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” But was our Constitution made with a singular religion in mind, or was the authors’ vision more pluralistic?
Even before we declared our independence, men such as Samuel Adams heralded religious tolerance as a hallmark of civil society: “In regard to religion, mutual toleration in the different professions thereof is what all good and candid minds in all ages have ever practised, and, both by precept and example, inculcated on mankind.” George Washington himself echoed this sentiment in 1792: “Of all the animosities which have existed among mankind those which are caused by a difference of sentiment in religion appear to be the most inveterate and distressing and ought most to be deprecated.” After fighting a war to gain freedom--religious and otherwise--from an intolerant king, these men seemed determined that America would be founded upon principles of tolerance.
James Madison, widely regarded as the Father of the Constitution, recognized that religious diversity and religious liberty were complementary concepts. He wrote in 1788: “If there were a majority of one sect, a bill of rights would be a poor protection for liberty. Happily for the states, they enjoy the utmost freedom of religion. This freedom arises from that
multiplicity of sects, which pervades America, and which is the best and only security for religious liberty in any society. For where there is such a variety of sects, there cannot be a majority of any one sect to oppress and persecute the rest.” Though Madison’s fellow countrymen seemed to agree with him on the presence of diversity, clearly they felt that protections would be bolstered by a written document, as seen in the First Amendment.
Madison, again, reflecting in 1822, acknowledged the dangerous tendency of all religions to assume they are the right one. “It was the belief of all sects at one time that the establishment of religion by law was right and necessary; that the true religion ought to be established in exclusion of all others; and that the only question to be decided was, which was the true religion.” Today, while the one true religion has yet to be proven--despite hundreds of micro-denominations chasing it down, many answer that timeless question “None” in such numbers as to have a whole demographic named after them.
But how broadly were these founding men willing to cast the net of religious tolerance? More broadly than one might expect. Writing in 1821, Thomas Jefferson noted that Christian language was purposefully omitted from the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, thereby guaranteeing protection more broadly to “the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.” Such language is certainly not anti-Christian, but it is far from being exclusive to the Christian faith. What could have laid the groundwork for such inclusion?
It turns out we have to look further back--two centuries further back. In 1620, the Pilgrims arrived in America seeking safe harbor from the Church of England. The colonies were
home to a diverse lot of Christian sects, including Congregationalists, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Quakers. By 1645, cities and towns were beginning to codify religious freedoms in their charters. Flushing, a neighborhood in New York City’s present-day borough of Queens, declared that its citizens would “enjoy the liberty of conscience according to the custom and manner of Holland, without molestation or disturbance from any magistrate, or magistrates, or any other ecclesiastical minister.” When Dutch colonial governor Peter Stuyvesant decided this freedom from molestation and disturbance would not apply to Quakers, the town of Flushing reaffirmed its commitment to tolerance with the Flushing Remonstrance of 1657:
The law of love, peace and liberty in the states extending to Jews, Turks, and Egyptians, as they are considered the sons of Adam, which is the glory of the outward state of Holland, so love, peace and liberty, extending to all in Christ Jesus, condemns hatred, war and bondage. And because our Savior saith it is impossible but that offenses will come, but woe unto him by whom they cometh, our desire is not to offend one of his little ones, in whatsoever form, name or title he appears in, whether Presbyterian, Independent, Baptist or Quaker, but shall be glad to see anything of God in any of them, desiring to do unto all men as we desire all men should do unto us, which is the true law both of Church and State; for our Saviour saith this is the law and the prophets.
Note: even though they quickly “flushed” religious intolerance and oppressive legislation, the town got its name from the Dutch city of Vlissingen. Also note: the Remonstrance is an overtly Christian document, acknowledging sons of Adam, and Christ Jesus as Savior while making appeals to His law.
Fast forward now, nearly four centuries. Flushing today is a microcosm of the religious diversity that exists across our nation. Within a span of 2.5 square miles, one finds over two hundred places of worship: Protestant and Catholic churches; Quaker meeting houses; Jewish
synagogues; Buddhist, Taoist, and Hindu temples. It is the sort of pluralism that our founders seemed to envision. Not anti-Christian, by any means. But, rather, a nation built on a Judeo-Christian ethic that extends tolerance and charity to all, “glad to see anything of God in any of them.”
So, in the spirit of tolerance, if you’re going to barbeque the sacred cow on the altar of Separation, at least be sure to provide a vegetable when you invite your Hindu neighbors.
To learn more about Flushing’s religiously diverse landscape and how it continues to paint a picture for a more tolerant and peaceful community, check out this video on the Reconnecting Roots YouTube channel, and don’t forget to like and subscribe!