Our Religious Liberty - Origins
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In November 2015, the issue of religious liberty in light of the Kim Davis debacle in Rowan County, Kentucky stirred a national controversy quite necessary as far as I was concerned. The topic was incendiary as fantasy, fiction and half-truths were put into a Roman Coliseum of sorts in order to battle these three expressions of "reality". The victor of this farce would take the prize of being the "truth" forced into the American collective conscience through our schools and media.
First and foremost, the United States was not established as a Christian nation in the truest sense of the word and all it conveys. The founding fathers of this country were predominantly theists and deeply influenced by the philosophy of the Enlightenment. George Washington was perhaps the most orthodox among of pioneers of the New Jerusalem. However, they were strong advocates for Judeo-Christian values and ethics, although many of them did fail to see God in their neighbor - and did not love their neighbor as themselves, if they were black or indigenous.
Prior to the American Revolution, however, is where we will find the real building blocks of our country. The Pilgrims, like the Puritans, were not seeking religious freedom for others. They were seeking it for themselves. This is not a bad thing, especially if we take into consideration the horrible penalties members of these two groups suffered in the hands of the established church in England - the Anglican Church. Let us also remember that prior to the Church of England's establishment, anyone caught reading the Bible in English or reciting the Lord's Prayer in English was subject to imprisonment or death. Inconceivable as this may be. What is even harder to wrap our minds around is that the Puritans did the very same thing to the so-called witches of Salem. The oppressed became oppressors - of even a more violent slant - when given the freedom to act without the fear of prosecution or sanction.
In the case of religious freedom, we must first remember that liberty of conscience came first. Roger Williams was a pioneer in this particular spiritual and philosophical endeavor. Williams was a Puritan, but also had a mind unlike many of his peers. It was dangerous and some consider him to be heretical, as in the case of Anne Hutchinson. He believed in the pursuit of religion as a very personal, intimate quest which could be stifled by doctrines and corrupt church structures. His promotion of soul liberty was as essential to personal freedom as one's own conscience being free to pursue God in peace without government or church intervention.
Another figured remembered mostly for an oatmeal brand and for being directly involved in the founding of the state that bears his name was William Penn, a Quaker. Most Americans today have no idea who the Quakers were and how important their ideas of religious liberty were to American religious culture. Quakers were never orthodox Christians in the sense Baptist or Presbyterians understand Christianity to be, especially in their view toward Universalism. More in line with New England liberal Congregationalists or Unitarians, Quakers were the champions of the Inner Light all human beings bear within. The kingdom of God is within each of you; His light is within you, too. Some would argue this is rather quite Gnostic than even remotely "orthodox" Christianity. Yet, these are the undeniable facts of American religious history.
No serious study of American religious history can be made without discussing the profound role played by the Unitarians and the Transcendentalists of New England. When many evangelical Christians today talk about America as founded as a Christian nation, they suggest it undeniably rooted in the Christian faith. But it wasn't. America was born already with the understanding that religion was a private affair. It was a matter of freedom, not obedience to theological precepts. Pluralism was part and parcel to the earliest freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Nowhere does the Constitution discuss separation of Church and State. Nowhere. It only ensures the U.S. would not have an official religion such as the Church of England in the UK. It does not mean that if the President spoke at a public venue where a cross is present, for instance, a photograph of the event cannot have the president next to the cross. Moreover, the so-called separation between Church and State does not even contemplate that a Christmas tree or a Nativity scene cannot be part of a public display in any city or town during the Christmas Season. Most of the founding fathers and mothers understood Christmas to be a part of Western Civilization and spoke to the innermost aspirations of all human beings of good will. It was noble, good and necessary to the better angels of our nature.
The National Secular Society, http://www.secularism.org.uk/what-is-secularism.html, defines secularism in a fashion that disguises the true intention of the organization. It seeks to remove any vestige of Christianity from the United States' public life. This is also wrong and profoundly un-American. The United States WAS established by individuals who exercised, supported, fought for and defended a Judeo-Christian worldview and its principles. Whether their understanding of God as Triune, one, personal, or impersonal, were different, that did not interfere in their belief in God to the extent that the motto etched on our currency is: "In God We Trust", they prayed upon embarking on any matter of state and all public events began with intention invocation of, and deference toward Almighty God. Religious pluralism affords all religions to be practiced freely and without fear of government intrusion. Secularism provides guidelines to offset the abuse of government over religious life and ironically, provides the checks and balances for religious freedom. Regrettably, most secularists have taken to intentionally misrepresenting secularism as a means to destroy the religious heritage of American and supplant it with revisionism and anti-Christian rhetoric.
Balance of thought, education, clear analysis of our history and efforts to protect the legacy and heritage provided to us by our nation's founders is the best way to ensure we remain faithful to the Constitution, but above all else, to God. Despite the theological differences shared, the unity in the reality of the One who gave us this land was undeniable. Let us not deny that, either.
God bless America.
The Rev'd Dr Daniel Medina
NOTE: This is the first of a few entries on Religious Liberty.