Lead by the likes of Jerry Falwell, Tim LaHaye, Tom DeLay and Karl Rove, an army of misguided Christian fundamentalists, the Religious Right, continues to push for tearing down the “wall of separation” established by America’s founding fathers. They claim there is no “wall of separation,” and that the framers of the Constitution intended that America be a Christian nation, implying that America’s laws should reflect biblical law. A brief survey of America’s history, taken from Robert Boston's Why The Religious Right Is Wrong, reveals what life in America was like before our Constitution was adopted when in fact Christian theocrats did rule the colonies.
In Massachusetts the Puritans supposedly came to America seeking religious freedom, but freedom for whom? The only freedom they promoted was freedom for themselves. They established a theocratic rule regulating every aspect of life based upon their interpretation of the bible.
The iconoclastic preacher Roger Williams complained that the state should have no place enforcing orthodoxy and argued for freedom of conscience. His view of the Puritan rule was that “no tenant…is so heretical, blasphemous, seditious, and dangerous…as persecution for the cause of conscience.” The Massachusetts civil authorities decided every citizen including Williams should take a loyalty oath to the governor. Williams refused! The Puritan leaders took Williams to court and found him guilty of “disseminating new and dangerous opinions” and banished him from the colony.
Anne Hutchinson was expelled by Governor Winthrop because she dared to hold unauthorized meetings in her home. John Wheelwright was tried, found guilty, and banished because his preaching was heretical. A band of Quakers were hanged by these Puritan Christians. Massachusetts’ most notable act of church/state theocratic rule was the Salem witch trials of 1692. Nineteen women were accused of witchcraft. Since the bible states “thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (Ex 22:18) the state’s obligatory punishment was obvious. State authorities in conjunction with church leaders hanged eighteen women and crushed the nineteenth to death with stones.
Quakers were cruelly persecuted in almost every colony. William Penn founded Pennsylvania to establish religious toleration. Though the toleration was a step forward, it was extended primarily to Protestants. Roman Catholics could conduct religious services, but were subject to periodic raids from neighboring Maryland.
In Virginia, the Anglican Church was the state church. Quakers and Catholics were barred. Baptists were often imprisoned or publicly whipped. Those who spoke impiously of the Trinity or Christian faith could be executed. Parents who failed to have their children baptized were fined. Non-attendance at church merited a fine for the first offense and a whipping for subsequent offenses. Those who cursed got the “bodkin” treatment, a sharp dagger thrust through the tongue.
Outside of Roger William’s Rhode Island, true religious liberty and respect for an individual’s conscience was not practiced in any of the colonies. Citizens were taxed to support churches, strict Sunday Sabbath laws were enforced, blasphemy was a capital offense, and public office was available only to those men who acknowledged certain Christian doctrine.
This was America, the Christian nation without a “wall of separation” between church and state, where clergy used their infallible bible to dictate who was an offense to the theocracy so civil authorities would carry out the necessary punishments. This was the America that spawned the thinking of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison that sought an answer to how true religious freedom could be achieved without hindering the practice of religion. Their conclusion: a secular nation that showed no favoritism toward any religion.
Their initial legislative effort was in Virginia. Presbyterians appealed to Madison to deliver them from “a long night of Ecclesiastical bondage” asking that church establishments be “pulled down, and every tax upon conscience and private judgment be abolished” so that Virginia might become an “asylum for free inquiry.” Patrick Henry, famed for the phrase “give me liberty or give me death,” still biased to Christianity, sought legislation to levy a tax to support ministers of the Christian religion. Opposition from Baptists and other minorities was swift and angry. Madison called Henry’s proposal “obnoxious on account of its dishonorable principle and dangerous tendency.” Henry’s proposal favoring Christianity was soundly defeated in 1785.
Baptist minister John Leland reflected the thoughts of Christians fighting for religious freedom. In response to Jefferson’s letter explaining the “wall of separation” to Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut, Leland wrote, “Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely…all should be equally free.” On another occasion Leland wrote, “Let man worship one God, twenty Gods, or no God, be he Jew, Turk, Pagan, or Infidel, he is eligible to any office in the state.”
The Constitution fashioned in 1787, largely by Madison, is a secular document. It makes no mention of God, Jesus Christ, a Supreme Being, or the Ten Commandments. Thus, the Constitution’s Article 6 reads, “No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any public office.” The First Amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It is this secular document showing no religious favoritism which is responsible for freedom of religion and conscience unique to America.
Today’s Christian fundamentalist preachers and politicians rejecting the “wall of separation,” preaching the Christian nation myth, detest everybody’s freedom but their own. Like their arrogant “busy body” Puritan forefathers, they seek to interfere in an individual’s private decisions by imposing their religious dogma. They constitute the most insidious, immoral, destructive movement in America and must be taken to task.
Deathbed Dollars by Bill Berkowitz
Other Articles by Lee Salisbury
Fundamentalist Christian Mindset and the Problem it Presents for America