The War of Politics and Religion
In previous centuries countries were ruled by both a political body and a religious body. Sometimes the two entities were so entwined as to be indistinguishable from each other. Every country had a single, legal or state religion. All other religious beliefs were punished to varying degrees. There were wars over religion, mass killings, murders, and so much strife as religious institutions fought to maintain political power. The concept of freedom of religion had not yet seen the light of day.
For example, after the death of King Henry VIII his two daughters, Mary and Elizabeth fought over the English throne. Elizabeth was a Protestant like her father and Mary was a Roman Catholic following in the Spanish tradition, (her mother was the daughter of the Spanish King and Queen.)
Whichever daughter could succeed to the throne would force the nation to follow the same religious doctrine. Of course, after Mary died Elizabeth succeeded her father to the throne thereby establishing Protestantism as the national religion. It became the only legal religion in England. English Catholics were persecuted and removed from universities and political positions and in many cases expelled from the country.
King James, (the son of Mary, Queen of Scots, beheaded by Elizabeth) succeeded Elizabeth after her death. His liberal view of Catholicism and his warming up to the Catholic pope helped spawn a group of reformers known as Puritans and an even more radical group called Separatists.
The Separatists (now referred to as the Pilgrims) believed that Protestantism was not enough. The Separatists wanted to separate from the Church of England. That is the difference between the Puritans and the Separatists. The Puritans who started the Massachusetts Bay Colony did not want to separate from the Anglican Church but they felt the Anglican Church was corrupt and they wanted more reforms. The Separatists on the other hand felt that the Anglican Church was too corrupt for reforms and called for complete separation from the Church. Both groups came to the New World with the hopes of practicing religion in freedom. The idea of separation of church and state was to some degree established in these early colonies but most Puritans believed that government was established for the enforcing of God’s will. These colonies acted as theocracies.
- For example, not attending church in Puritan Massachusetts meant a hefty fine, a few hours in the stocks or for repeat offenders, a public whipping. Speaking against Puritanism or other kinds of heresy was often punishable by death. The Puritans were responsible for the Salem witch trials in the 1690′s. This does not sound like the principles of freedom that America was founded upon.
The First Amendment
The first amendment states that “Congress shall make no laws respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;” Where did this idea come from? Certainly the Puritans and the Separatists both believed that governments could and should ensure the proper practice of religion and rote worship. The very idea that government should not make laws respecting the establishment of religion would have been heresy.
- For Roger Williams it was heresy. He proposed and preached the idea to the Puritan congregations in Salem and was banished for it. He is most likely the first historical figure from the colonial era who wrote and promoted the idea of keeping the government separate from religion and that civil affairs should remain with the people. Ideas we take for granted today, were for Williams, dangerous and revolutionary. His ideas would influence the likes of John Milton and John Locke who both went on to influence Jefferson, Madison and other architects of Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
Roger Williams was a preacher and a deeply religious Puritan. He arrived in Massachusetts Bay Colony only a few months after John Winthrop. Winthrop had arrived with the intent of creating a “city on a hill.” His goal was to have a pure community of pious people that practiced the will of God in everyday affairs. The Puritans believed if the people erred in religion that the colony would fail. The government should do all in its power to prevent the people from erring in religious practices.
Winthrop, who knew Williams considered him a “godly minister,” and he was offered a position in the Boston Church. Rogers declined the offer. He believed that it was impossible to remove error from religion because people interpret God’s law and people are subject to error. It was his conclusion that government should not touch anything that related to an individuals relationship with God. He believed this kind of interference would corrupt the church and politicize religion.
Williams eventually accepted a post in Salem, Massachusetts where he preached these ideas to others who were like minded. The Massachusetts Bay authorities worried that Williams preaching would lead to further corruption of Puritan ideals. He was banished in 1635 on pain of execution should he return.
It was winter when Williams fled Salem. He found himself alone, without shelter from the cold and cut off from society and community. He made his way south to the Narragansett River and befriended the Indians who helped him, in what is now modern day Rhode Island, where he hoped to begin a settlement for others who had been similarly “distressed.” He bought land from the Narragansett Indians. A few of his followers and family joined him.
Williams realized the need for a government and drafted a compact for his new settlement. He was the sole owner of the purchased land and could have acted as the ultimate authority but instead he made all the land part of the common stock. He had no greater or lesser privilege than anyone else. He named his settlement Providence. The compact he wrote for the governance of the settlement was unique from any other in any of the colonies because in the compact he never mentioned God. Not because he was not a religious man, but he believed so fervently that governments did not receive their authority from God and that governmental power was derived from and belonged solely to the people that were governed. It was a most revolutionary idea.
He later went to England to procure a charter from Charles II giving Rhode Island a true democracy. In the charter it states: “full Powre & Authority to Governe & rule themselves…by such a form of Civil Government, as by voluntary consent of all, or the greater Part of them shall find most suteable” so long as its laws “be conformable to the Laws of England, so far as the Nature and Constitution of the place will admit.”
Williams had successfully created a truly free society governed by a civil body of people. The only one of its kind in the world. He was a fierce believer in God and the truth of the Bible and just as fiercely defended the rights of others to be free to believe otherwise. He ended up worshiping at no church at all. He believed that it was more likely for an individual to determine the will of God than for an institution to do so. Roger Williams was also the first to make laws prohibiting slavery. He died at age 80. He left an incredible legacy of a free society and was the first to establish a successful colony with the separation of church and state.
William Penn, a Quaker from England wanted to create a colony that would not discriminate against Quakers and other religious dissidents. He had visited Holland and admired greatly the free commerce and tolerance of religions there. He was granted a charter by Charles II who had owed his late father, Admiral Penn about 16,000 English pounds. He was granted the land now known as Pennsylvania.
He sailed to America in 1682. He founded his city of brotherly love, Philadelphia with other Quakers. His main concern was to create a legal basis for a free society.
In his First Frame of Government Penn proposed that the governor, himself to begin with, would have limited powers. He would work with a council and general assembly and members would be elected on a three year term. He proposed private property, low taxes, free enterprise, freedom of speech, trial by jury and freedom of religion.
In England, you could be put to death for over 200 offenses but in Pennsylvania there were only two, murder and treason. He encouraged equality between men and women and supported women speaking out in public as well as the education of women.
Penn also worked out treaties with the Indians and was able to negotiate peaceful conditions between the natives and the colonists-something too many other colonies had failed to do. The land was traded fairly and he was respected by the Indians and with his “Great Treaty” maintained a seventy year peace.
His constitution was the first to propose amendments as a peaceful solution for making governmental changes. Pennsylvania was a haven for Europeans that were sick of war and religious persecution. As such it flourished and became one of the fastest growing colonies in America.
It was the first great melting pot with Irish, Germans, Dutch, English, Spanish, French and many others and was a thriving port city acting as a commercial bridge between Europe and the colonies.
Little wonder that Philadelphia became the center of revolutionary discussion and that the Declaration of Independence was written there.
Separation of Church and State
Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to the Danbury Baptists in 1801, speaks also of the necessary “wall of separation between church and state.” This quote from his letter was actually paraphrased from a quote by Roger Williams. Roger Williams, as a highly religious person who included God and religion in all of his affairs could not have meant for religion to be extricated from public life. The statement as used by Jefferson also does not imply that there should be no religious component in state and secular affairs but that the government should not dictate the practice of religion. It was government intrusion into religion that prompted the separation of church and state–not the other way around.
The Baptists were highly persecuted in Massachusetts during the colonial period because they did not believe in infant baptism. The Puritans created laws that made life difficult for the Baptists. The Danbury Baptists contacted Jefferson during his presidency seeking support for freedom of religion as it was proposed in the Constitution. Here is an excerpt from that letter clarifying Jefferson’s position on the matter.
- Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.
Jefferson understood that man’s rights should not be dictated by his religious beliefs and similar to Williams he believed in religions being a matter between an individual and his God. This is an example of how the “wall of separation” is meant to protect religious practices. It is not meant to protect secular rights or protect others from being influenced by religion and it is certainly not meant to prohibit religion in the public arena. Quite the opposite.
- In many ways, the United States has reverted back to an earlier period where governments could dictate how and where individuals could practice religion. Today, there are laws preventing prayer in school, the word Christmas is considered politically incorrect for its implications of Christ, Bibles are not allowed in public schools as though religion and spirituality is a threat to civil affairs. We do our children a disservice by trying to teach tolerance of other races with constant education and exposure to other cultures but not tolerance of other religions and spiritual beliefs because it has become taboo. This is exactly the kind of thing, the First Amendment was meant to avoid. The wall of separation has been penetrated and governments are now free to prevent religion and religious practice in any secular organization, all in the name of separation of church and state.
There is room in our political system and governmental affairs for a spiritual dimension. For the human being who believes in God or a higher power, this belief cannot be separated from interactions and affairs as a public servant but his or her affiliation with a particular institution or establishment can be and should be. When a belief in God is freed from the fetters of church propaganda it becomes an enhancement to any free society. Why? Because each person then sees him or herself as accountable to a higher being or power other than man-made governments and thereby establishing a greater measure of personal responsibility. This creates the potential for a self-governing people rather than a dependent society that blames an imperfect government for their problems.
The separation of church and state creates the potential for the quality of government envisioned by Roger Williams and William Penn, the kind of free society for which the signers of the Declaration of Independence risked their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. Freedom of religion is the basis of a free world that too many have bled and died for. Is it any wonder that freedom of religion is the First Amendment? Such is its importance.