I’ve been thinking about freedom of religion a lot lately, given the controversy over the mosque near Ground Zero in NYC. It seems convenient that the hype has been all whipped up just in time for the midterm elections – to distract us from how bad the economy really is? Or maybe it’s just a summer news story that won’t go away?
It begs the question: does opposition to the placement of a mosque (regardless of where it is) violate the First Amendment right to the freedom of religion?
Before we answer this question, we should look at America’s earliest history of religious (in)tolerance.
In December 1620, the Pilgrims, a group of Separatists, arrived “on the stony coast of New England… with a total of 102 persons” aboard the Mayflower. They were part of the Virginia Company and should have landed somewhere in that colony where they could practice their religion free of interference from King James I, the Dutch (where they had originally fled to in 1608), or the dreaded Pope. These Separatists/Pilgrims weren’t really happy with allowing just anyone into their church, but since very few of them were really good sailors or frontiersmen, they had to bring some of those “undesirables” or non-visible saints along with them. Myles Standish (pic at left) was one of these folks, and he proved indispensable. There was no greeting party awaiting their arrival. Only 44 survived that awful first winter.
Once the Pilgrims were finally settled, their elected leader, William Bradford worried that those pesky “independent, non-Puritan settlers…might corrupt his godly experiment in the wilderness” (Kennedy, et. al. 44). This is probably why the Plymouth settlement remained small, around 7,000 inhabitants, by the time it merged with the much larger colony to the north, Massachusetts Bay, in 1691.
Now to the Puritans, a more moderate sect of the Church of England, who wanted to reform it of its Catholic ways from within. These Puritans didn’t like the C of E’s reliance on bishops or a king as the head of its church (which King Charles I was by 1629), but when Charles and his appointee, Archbishop of Canterbury Laud, began persecuting Puritans, John Winthrop and other leading Puritans decided that it was time to leave their mother country and head to the established Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Let’s see how the Puritans do with two famous dissenters:
1. Anne Hutchinson (1591-1643) – described as an “exceptionally, intelligent, strong-willed and talkative woman,” Anne questioned the doctrine of pre-destination by stating that it was foolish to think a holy life was a sign that God had saved you. She even went a step further and added that the truly saved don’t need to follow any laws, man’s or God’s, b/c they’re already saved. When she stated that these insights came to her in vision from God, the Puritan ruling elite sent her pregnant self and her family to Rhode Island in 1638. When she moved to New York, almost all of her family was killed by Indians which John Winthrop saw “God’s hand” in this. Ouch!
2. Roger Williams – Roger arrived as a personable preacher and teacher in Salem in February 1631 at the age of 27. The text describes him as a “young man w/ radical ideas and an unrestrained tongue…he hounded fellow clergymen to make a clean break with the corrupt Church of England” (Kennedy, et. al. 47). Williams questioned three major Puritan issues:
- The right of the colonists to keep the land they’re on: Williams felt that the power of King Charles to issue a charter in the New World was null and void b/c the English claimed this land (Massachusetts) that was already being used by others (Native Americans);
- He was a radical Separatist (like the Pilgrims) and considered the rest of the non-Separatist Puritans he lived amongst to be sinners b/c they still considered themselves part of the Church of England (Anglican Church). Williams felt that all of the Puritans were damned unless they “publicly apologize for having ever worshipped in [Anglican churches] back in England” (Vowell 100);
- Williams also attacked the Puritans’ use of civil government to regulate religious affairs (like punishing someone for not going to church). He was asking for the novel concept of the separation of church and state, because as he stated, religion had been used in the past by governments like a hammer to kill hundreds of thousands, if not millions.
Under intense pressure, Williams later apologized for his “rash” statements, but eventually, he kept going farther and farther with his teachings. Puritan leaders were worried about him creating a colony of cranks and non-conformists, so they continually pressured him to shut up. He escaped the Bay Colony in 1636 and got to Providence, Rhode Island where he built what was probably the first Baptist church in America.