The Experiment of American Religious Freedom



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The core of American religious freedom is people are free to practice any religion, so long as they do not limit any one else practicing their religion or morals. For example, a pharmacist who because of conscience refuses to fill any prescription interferes with the patient's rights. Is such a pharmacist an inquisitor. Are those who limit what women and LGBT people can do inquisitors? The Founders believed we respect one another and each other's religion — whatever their religion or their being agnostic or atheist.

Separation of church and state is separation of two organizations or institutions that have very different functions. But both church and state have core similarities: a culture of dominance, attract power and control, they grab turf. The Founders recognized that both religious convictions and national patriotism make ultimate demands on people, so the institutions must be separate. Is that why Jefferson said the First Amendment religion clauses built a wall?

This separation is not between politics and religion. From early in the Jewish Scriptures through prophets from Amos and Micah to Isaiah and Jesus we are required to do justice and love mercy, to feed neighbors and welcome strangers. Those teachings require Jews and Christians to challenge states and politicians. Other religions and secular philosophers motivate challenges of states and politicians.

We will contrast "Church and State" to "religion and politics." We will discuss implications of these concepts and discuss the differences between preachers or laity today advocating for issues, such as the civil rights struggles, compared to what is portrayed in the first film Elizabeth (starring Cate Blanchett).

Books and readings about religious freedom.

We begin our study with recent examples of the three types of relations between church and state and discussion of the advantages and problems of each:

  • Iran and Talliban are examples of control by religious organizations, called theocracy contrast to democracy (theo = god while demos = common people);
  • Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were examples of control by government; and
  • United States separates church and state, aiming to eliminate entanglements; is separation why American religions are so strong?

History of relations between churches and states and the effects of control: The Roman Empire in the third century CE through the Holy Roman Empire was theocracy, sometimes weak and sometimes dictatorial. Noteworthy examples are Popes Gregory VII, Innocent III, Boniface VIII.

  • For the German Reformation to succeed Martin Luther had to depend on government help. That dependency had effects through Nazism.
  • Geneva under John Calvin, the Catholic Inquisition, and the Reformation in England were control by either churches or governments, and resulted in dissidents, secret police, expulsion, prison, and death (often your head on a post, as in the film A Man for All Seasons).
  • In the Enlightenment John Locke and others developed theories about religion and politics, church and state, based on human reason; Locke and some others also used Scripture. They suggested how to reduce problems and conflict between churches and states. Some claim the Enlightenment philosophers were too optimistic and trusting of people, but they wrote of "checks and balance."
  • American experiences of tyranny and persecutions by churches and governments. Roger Williams built in Rhode Island what John Locke envisioned . Why Maryland was the first colony with religious freedom. The other eleven colonies had forms of state churches or theocracy.
  • Jefferson, Madison, and most of the founders read Locke, and wrote about church and state and about politics and religion. The background for Madison writing his Memorial and Remonstrance and Madison led the Legislature to enact Jefferson's Virginia Statute; we study both.
  • Establishments continued, in one state until 1833; we explore essential differences between tolerance and liberty, so we recognize that tolerance is actually tyranny.
  • The Constitutional Convention and Madison's and Jefferson's influence.
  • Background, conflicts, and politics in drafting the Bill of Rights, and Jefferson's letter that the first Amendment erects a "wall of separation."
  • The practical conclusion: a secular government and churches that are free to do their thing in their own ways, so long as they do not disturb others. The advantages and problems that result from separation.
  • Presidents' actions and historic events influenced churches and states and their relationships. The influence of churches through the 19th century that sometimes were de facto establishments.

Current issues:

  • Chaplains in the military, in Congress, and in legislatures;
  • Abortion, end-of-life choices, sexual orientation: are these legislative issues or personal and private decisions based on an individual's morality and religion as guaranteed by the first amendment?
  • The variety of religions that flourished the last fifty years in the U.S. as no where else — Christian, Jew, Moslem, Buddhist, Wicca — and agnostics and atheists. Is this positive? a result of separation?
  • Conscientious objectors to war, and different ways they have been treated;
  • Through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries much of the U.S. was de facto established Christian but divided among widely differing groups; recently many coalesced into "evangelical" or "mainstream;" the effects of these situations;
  • Government funding of religious groups to provide social services and necessary protections of how tax money is used;
  • Separation of Church and State itself as an issue and recent arguments about it;
  • Jefferson's influence on the Constitution;
  • The Kennedy campaign for President and the question, is what he said true in today's politics where some church leaders threaten anyone voting for abortion rights? and
  • President Clinton's insightful and accurately clarifying religion in public schools.

Summary of issues about which the Supreme Court made decisions: 

  • Prayer and Bible reading in public schools
  • School buses, books, computers, and other assistance to non public schools
  • Responsibility for the deaths of children when their parents elect religious beliefs instead of medical treatment
  • Nativity & other religious scenes on public property
  • Teaching creationism and its cousins in public schools

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Copyright © 2008 John F. Yeaman