Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Freedom of Religion: The Mayflower vs. the U.S. Constitution

The main disjoint between the United States and itself, of course, is that of its traditional earliest settlers -- i.e., the 'Pilgrims,' 'Puritans' or Anabaptists -- and the other religious malcontents who followed suit in emigrating to the New World. In contrast to Spain, who enforced restrictions against 'heretics' settling in its colonies because they were intent on converting the natives to Catholicism, England saw it as a convenient way of getting the dissidents and deviants out of the way -- even if they weren't guaranteed to get along with each other. This made America, by default, the first truly heterodox territory-nation in the Western Hemisphere -- or at least since the diplomatic empire-building of Alexander the Great.

The Puritans wanted 'freedom of religion,' as everyone knows.....well, they wanted freedom of their religion against the corruptions of everyone else's, is more like it. The Anabaptists had already found the Netherlands too liberal and tolerant for their tastes, if that's any indication of enduring differences. Their colonies had a sizeable dominance over New England -- yet their denomination was never officially denoted as a 'state religion' -- only a 'city-state religion.' Rhode Island and Pennsylvania also gained charters of their own, but they were not Puritan colonies, and it is notable that the first instances of interdenominational strife in the colonies (though to those involved it might as well have been interreligious entirely) were those of the Puritans refusing to tolerate other sects/denominations in their vicinity -- harassing, assaulting, whipping, tarring & feathering those who did not follow the Puritan ways (which is why Rhode Island was founded in the first place, as a haven for 'heretics' and freethinkers being persecuted elsewhere in the greater region).

So, the first trend that one group of co-religionists started once free of the (real or imagined) pressures inhibiting the practice of their faith....was to start pressuring and inhibiting others from practising any other faith or manner of living. They acted as if they had been granted a charter not merely to settle but to subjugate -- and thus we have the birth of the Religious Right, before the nation itself had been founded.

But what is older is not always better, though it tends to have a strong hold on cultural attitudes -- as the fitful pace of civil rights legislation/saturation in this country has been demonstrating for generations. When it came to creating a framework for the new nation as a whole, the men who were most closely involved with the final product had a definite desire that no religion nor denomination should be enabled, whether through apppointment nor through negligence, to assert itself as the state religion over others. And they were close enough to the past to see what could happen in such an unregulated situation. They said what they thought was necessary, and no doubt thought that posterity might listen -- yet, on the grounds that they were all nominally Christian-or-some-variant-thereof-but-at-least-not-atheist, people have since claimed erroneously that "America Was Intended to Be a Christian Nation."

America was not intended to be a Christian nation. America was 'intended', if anything, as a way to get rid of disruptive domestic elements from England, France and other parts and make their toil productive for their overseas sovereigns. The first rallying cry of the American Revolution was "No taxation without representation" -- that is, everyone deserves a say in the way that things work. Originally that was restricted to white adult male landowners...then the property requirement was lifted...then race, then sex, though there's still the educational dilemma of whether a populace can be considered informed enough to vote unless they can read the dominant language. But it is well worth noting that the legal framework of the Constitution, despite any references to God/Creator/Maker in the seminal documentation of the nation, never restricted any rights according to religion. That, my friends, has all been the work of tradition, social prejudice and entrenched nativism, but was never meant to be a legal disbarrment. Hence, whatever their other social assumptions regarding race, class, education, sex, etc., one must conclude that the United States as a nation was intended to have religious equality and freedom for all -- not just some, not even just a majority of co-religionists or faiths of similar moral conservatism, but all.

That does not mean lack of freedom for religions (unless those religions commit crimes against others); it does not mean the banning of religions from all public expression, as under Communist regimes. Let's get it cleared up -- the only thing that is required of a religion in this country is that it not obstruct the rights and basic freedoms of others, and that is the basis for every advance of explicit civil rights (as not everything can be foreseen two centuries ahead) that elicits cries of "State persecution!" from traditionalist religious denominations today. They are not being oppressed. They are not even being repressed. (Now you see the non-violence inherent in the system)

As it was stated, so let it be guaranteed under law, with no equivocations and panderings to the "born-again" ministers of state and their voting blocs -- America must guarantee not only the freedom to worship, and the freedom to worship/commune as one feels is right, but the freedom not to worship, and the freedom not to live in fear and trepidation of being persecuted for not following the rules based solely on religion's pervasiveness in former days. Freedom not to worship rules made by and for other religions, and not to be punished for offending those sects' delicate sensibilities, whether by one's daily life and livelihood, by one's own spiritual practice, by one's visible relationships or by one's very existence as a visible person. If the laws do not allow for an encompassing view rather than one that caters to an established religion, they are not laws that can be fairly applied to all citizens. In short: state-enabled rule by excuse of religion is effectively the same thing as endorsing a state religion (albeit with slightly less in the way of purges and executions)....and that is against the law of this nation as it still fundamentally stands. Our Founding Fathers did not foresee nor have the power to root out all the blue laws and moral objections that would linger on for centuries as dead-hands on the practice of our freedoms...they are our weeds to uproot, as this nation is our garden to tend, regardless of religious faith or the lack thereof. But let us have faith in something that is not bound to either extreme of militancy.

I am glad that I have an education and the ability to think for myself -- some people are never allowed to get that far in viewing the world they live in. And then there are some who consider themselved educated by dint of higher schooling but apparently haven't learned much. Those many who now believe in American theocracy as a sacred mission have a pitifully poor sense of this nation's prenatal history as a free range for religious social tyranny and extremism. They don't remember history -- and I think you know the rest of the quote. Even in the present crisis, the best answer to one religious extremism is not another extremism, and it never was. It is only in the assertion and rediscovering of the "self-evident" truths of human equality, of dignity and responsible freedom, that the best of our nation and of human civilization can be preserved against those -- all those -- who truly do wish to destroy those truths in the name of their gods.

Things to Do: clean out the lawbooks, dust out the irrational social mores, and remember how far we've come -- and how much farther we need to grow if this nation's ever going to grow up for real.

[For further information on the "Blog Against Theocracy" project, see]

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