DC at Night

DC at Night

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Fight for Religious Liberty

Religion has always been a contentious issue in American governance. Every school child knows that the Puritans fled England to Plymouth Colony for religious freedom. But almost immediately, the Puritans banned the practice of any religion other than theirs, going so far as to banish dissenters and hang Quakers. Religious intolerance was evidenced in other areas, too. For example, in Catholic-dominated Maryland, Jews had no rights while back in Massachusetts, Catholics had to sign a pledge vowing that they were not working for the Pope.

Therefore, it's not surprising that the Founding Fathers struggled with many religious questions as they created the Constitution which would guide the new American Nation. In fact, in order to get the Constitution approved, the idea of God, church, and religion was left out of the document all together. But, the importance of the religion to America and a specific way to view it was never better demonstrated than in the adoption of the Bill of Rights, the first 10 Amendments to the country's approved laws of governing.

The words about religion were simple and they were few - 16 to be exact. But they were radical, revolutionary, and historically unprecedented. And no one can argue that their lasting impact has proven profound. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ..."

Pretty clear and simple, right? Well, not exactly, a panel of historians and First Amendment freedom experts contended last night in a wide-ranging discussion on historical and contemporary church and state issues at the Newseum.

The discussion followed the premiere presentation of a portion of the new PBS documentary First Freedom: The Fight for Religious Liberty. The screening was sponsored by the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum.

The 3 panelists - Rice University history professor Douglas Brinkley; professor emeritus of American studies, history, and religious studies at Yale University Jon Butler; and Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project - agreed that Thomas Jefferson, who greatly feared that a state-ordered religion could exert "pernicious control and tyranny over the minds of man", should be credited with establishing the American wall of separation between the church and the state, the 1st of its kind ever created in the world. "Jefferson trusted that the truth would win out," Haynes said.

But what about our modern interpretations of such a division? "The Pledge of Allegiance. In God we trust. It's all politics," Brinkley said. "Atheists might argue, but it's almost as if we have a national belief in God. When we try denuding religion out of politics, the left and the right divide. We have become a more secular society, yet religion still matters."

Haynes and Butler concurred. "Politicians have to practice some religion," Haynes said. "We are quite a far distance from a time when having an atheist accepted as a president can happen." And, indeed, current politics supports that contention. For example, when is the last time you have heard a major political speech that didn't end with some form of the phrase "... and God bless the United States of America."

But our contemporary times do demonstrate a lessening of the importance of specific religious affiliations in many areas. For example, in 1960 John Kennedy had to alleviate concerns about electing a Catholic president by joking that he was "not that good a Catholic." Today, 6 Catholics and 3 Jews (which means no Protestants) sit on the Supreme Court. And the 2012 election - with President Obama, Mitt Romney (a Mormon) and vice presidential hopefuls Joe Biden and Paul Ryan (both Catholics) - marks the 1st time in American history than none of the candidates for the highest 2 offices in the land are white Protestants.

And in many ways, it is this decline in Protestant control that is causing much of the religious consternation, today. For the 1st time in the country's history, people calling themselves Protestants make up less than 50% of the country's population. Obviously, when Protestants dominated, their values dominated as well. But now  that is changing. "It was always assumed that the culture would reflect who we are. But now we have to rethink that. And people deeply want to hold on to a culture that they think reflects their values," Haynes said.

Brinkley pointed to another way that  despite the long-held legal separation politics and religion are mixing differently today. "For so long, Catholics were Democrats," Brinkley said. "But with Roe vs. Wade (the court case legalizing abortion) and a gay marriage, that status is changing."

Of course, the First Amendment not only prohibits the establishment of a state religion, but also calls for allowing any religion to flourish. But that too can cause problems. For example, after 9/11 a continuing wave of hatred toward American Muslims has continued to surface, most recently in Milwaukee where a lone gunmen entered a temple and killed members of the Sikh faith, mistakenly believing they were Muslims. All 3 panelists agreed that the Muslims are facing the greatest threats of any religious group in America today.

Finally, there are extremely controversial issues that seem to fall in under both the areas of state and religion. "We still have to ask - just what is religious freedom? With such things as Obama-care, contraception, and gay rights, what is one person's restrictions is believed to be another person's rights," Haynes said.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
The documentary provided a perfect introduction for the engaging panel talk. It was produced by the Washington DC PBS affiliate WETA. It will be shown on that channel at 8 p.m. on Dec. 18. It will also be shown on PBS stations around the country. You can view the trailer for the documentary by clicking here.

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