Saturday, April 02, 2005

Those American Values Part 2 - With Liberty and Religious Freedom for All

A Response to Criticism of "Those American Values"

Is it by choice or by chance that this lively argument over the historic roles of government and religion rages today?

Perhaps those who are so intent upon removing any suggestion of separation of church and state ignore, deny, or circumvent the true history of how the fundamental principle of separation came to be included in our founding documents. Pop religious beliefs taught by miseducated and unread clerics who have not studied early American history leading up to the founding of America help create an innocently ignorant religious populace.

Today shrill elements from within religious/political factions claiming to be the benefactors who gifted George W. Bush his 2005 win have become increasingly determined to erase the heritage and principle of strict separation from within the Constitution and the history of the nation. Therefore, there is ample reason to reexamine in detail what transpired prior to 1776 and during the adoption of our federal constitution. The fear of foreign domination of religious organizations should be given a closer look. One alarming example of this was the Quebec Act enacted by the British Parliament.

The period of time between the discovery of North America and the Declaration of Independence was a religiously turbulent and divisive century and a half.

“In the history of mankind religion has often been the enemy, not the ally, of liberty. Some even see the rise of liberty as a progressive emancipation from religion….The period of the American Revolution, in particular, shows the forces of religion moving sometimes in concert, some times in contradiction; crying in this quarter for force, in that for peace; here embracing liberty, there fearing it. The forces were not evenly matched, however, and through coalitions sometimes strange, often fortuitous, victory came for the friends of liberty.”
So framed Edwin Scott Gaustad the prefix for his seminal discussion of what led up to the adoption of our founding documents in his work, A Religious History of America.

“Even before the Declaration of Independence most colonies granted a measure of religious toleration and the right of worship. But the conditions under which these privileges might be enjoyed varied from place to place. The two churches enjoying legal sanction, Congregationalism in New England and Anglicanism elsewhere failed to maintain their respective monopolies---despite sometimes frantic efforts to do so. Threatened by growing dissent the Anglicans and Congregationalists jockeyed for favor and continued control. Soon, however, the intramural feuds yielded to larger,inter-colonial fears.

“In the arena of religious opinion two great anxieties haunted America’s colonials. One was the fear of episcopacy (i.e., of the coming of Anglican bishops to American shores); the other, the fear of popery (i.e., of a foreign Roman Catholic power gaining control of the North American continent). Neither was a purely religious fear. In both instances it was the conjunction of civil and spiritual power, the confluence of church and state that provoked grave concern. Legitimate political anxieties ignited the fire; religious suspicions and animosities fanned the flames.”
Outlined by Gaustad this condition had everything to do with the ferment that created the genius of our national constitution and its endurance as a superior framework for the peaceable coexistence of civil government and all forms of religion.

It was clear in the 1770’s that the colonies were about to receive Anglican bishops from England with both civil and religious authority. What was the objection? Simply put these bishops were never just spiritual overseers of the flock --they were always more. In England it was well known that bishops “were wielders of great power” in the English parliament.

“Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Quakers had in varying degrees a personal knowledge of ‘the bloudy tenent of persecution for cause of conscience.’” The colonists realized that the arrival and entrenchment of a bishopric would cause great harm to those who held heretical or dissenting religious views. The Colonists, being directly in the middle of this struggle and being better informed than we; who barely, if at all, know our own religious history, were aware that, “(i)n the turbulence of seventeenth-century England thousands had been tossed about; jailed, exiled, or put to death. The merest possibility of such power being imposed upon the dissenting churches raised immediate fears and resolute resistance” to both the Anglican bishopric and the ascendancy to power, clerical and civil, of the Roman Catholic hierarchy based in Rome.

This then was in large part the atmosphere leading up to that period of the Declaration of Independence. In point of fact, this rebellion against the establishment of religion was the revolution that led up to and produced the American Revolution commencing July 4, 1776.

Many Colonial religious leaders and patriots made notable statements and produced writings that reflected the tension and the strength of conscience that actually brought about the break with England and the beginning of the American Revolution. They were determined to break with the old and the failed and create the new; the foundations of liberty, which today still redound to their intellect and courage.

Today uninformed contemporary attacks and naive attempts to undo their work and to literally redefine and erase the founding intent and meaning can sound an alarm. Especially threatening are those developments in our present age where tenets of religious dogma and fervor are in the verbal stages of a cultural and civil war over religious values. Why do these revisionists reek with lust for civil power and precipitate rising hatred of the “other,” those seen outside that narrowly drawn circle of “true Christians”; as some notables—religious and political—would define and enforce? Once freed from those who would prescript religious doctrines and practices, “ we the people” must hold our heritage dearly. Careless clerics must be reeducated.

Gaustad writes:
“As waters of political tension between the colonists and the mother country rose, religious resentments similarly increased. In the decade of the 1760’s fear of Anglican (hieratical) encroachment was at its height, and in the 1770’s the dam burst.”
Representative of this period is New York’s William Livingston, who spoke out in anticipation of the arrival of Anglican authority on these shores. He regularly and strongly pointed out and opined against “unreasonable encroachments” of the Anglicans. “He reported every exercise of Anglican authority in New York, every case of church-state manipulation, and reported it in such as way as to aggravate all dissenters’ fears of what the future, under English bishops, might bring.” Livingston would not tolerate “all tyrants civil or ecclesiastic.”

Gaustad again:


“Dissenters confidently expected that an episcopate meant at least 1.) The loss
of their colonial charters 2.) The imposition of taxes for the support of the Anglican Church 3.) A restriction of all public offices to the members of the Church of England. A convention of delegates assembled at Yale’s commencement in 1769, having ‘reason to dread the establishment of bishop’s courts among us’ observed : ‘We have so long tasted the sweets of civil and religious liberty that we cannot be easily prevailed upon to submit to the yoke of bondage, which neither we nor our fathers were able to bear.’”
The Church of England suggested compromise. One representative reply came from Jonathan Mayhew, colonial minister, “People are not usually deprived of their liberties all at once, but gradually, by one encroachment after another, as it is found they are disposed to bear them.”

Such sentiment is a chilling truth for our present situation, a time when precious freedoms are being eroded by a strange cabal of strong forces intent upon radical changes: governmental, corporate, and churchly push for control in America.

England fused the anti-popish and anti-Anglican sentiments “by the terms of the Peace of Paris in 1763 England fell heir to the vast French territory in Canada, territory that was almost exclusively Catholic. In 1774 Parliament passed the Quebec Act, guaranteeing to Roman Catholics the free exercise of their religion, including the collections of tithes in all of Quebec as well as in the American “Old Northwest” (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin). This “establishment” of Roman Catholic religion, as Alexander Hamilton and others regarded it, touched off a violent reaction among colonial dissenters and Anglicans as well.”

Opined one dissenter, “The city of Philadelphia may yet experience the carnage of St. Bartholomew’s Day (August 23, 1572, when a council meeting in Paris ordered the slaughter of Huguenots in areas of France, thousands were slain). Leadership warned, “America’s whole religious heritage was in danger and might have to be fought for; America must not fall before the ‘tyranny under which Europe groaned for many ages.’”

“In Massachusetts, Suffolk County formally resolved in 1774 that the Quebec Act ‘is dangerous in an extreme degree to the Protestant religion, and to the civil rights of all Americans; and therefore as men and as Protestant Christians, we are indispensably obliged to take all proper measures for our security.”

The Quebec Act was one of those “Intolerable Acts” alluded to and condemned by the Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia fall of 1774.

On this matter and others “Churchmen of every major persuasion joined in the battle for independence. Catholics, Anglicans, Jewish, Reformed, Lutheran, Baptist, Presbyterian, and Congregational volunteers. With the surrender at Yorktown on October 19, 1781, British fate was sealed and liberty had been won.”

Given the mounting attacks and acrimony about the injection of religious establishment into our government raised by those who believe they now own George W. Bush by virtue of his active acceptance and solicitation of their support--and ultimately predicated on their delivery of the necessary winning votes which certain religious activists produced on November 2, we may well ask: Will these treasured freedoms and liberty from both civil and religious tyrants and oppression prevail in our times?

With the defense of the Revolution once again in our hands, we must reexamine and doubly commit ourselves to preserve and enhance our founding liberties through a maturing understanding of their high promise and protections and a willingness to step up to the challenge mounted by the zealots and misguided, and, yes, fearful religious enthusiasts who would trade our civic birthright for a cold bowl of religious control and suppression served from their controlling hands. Current pop religious misinformation should be guarded against by a serious examination of the religious conditions at the time of the writing of the Constitution.


Quotations for this essay are from:
A Religious History of America, Edwin Scott Gaustad, Harper & Row, 1966.