The original Puritans were among the most liberal people of their time. Emerging mid-16th century after Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church, Edward VI’s brief Protestant ascendancy and Mary I’s bloody reaction, the Puritan element of English Protestantism advocated a person’s right to read (or hear) the Bible and decide individually what to believe and how to worship.
This emphasis on personal conscience opposed the conforming strictures of both Roman Catholicism and Elizabeth I’s emerging Church of England. Actually, the people for whom Elizabeth held what little affection she could spare from herself – the Dudley/Sidney families and her Carey cousins (descendants of her mother’s sister Mary Boleyn) – were staunch Puritans.
But, theology was just another branch of politics at a time when a pope had promised absolution to anyone who murdered England’s heretic queen. Catholicism was outlawed since loyalty to England had to override loyalty to Rome. Continued Catholic plots against her monarchy stiffened her neck against Catholics and cost the necks of her cousins Thomas Howard and Scotland’s Queen Mary.
The issue was power. Elizabeth also canned one Archbishop of Canterbury for his refusal to suppress the free preachers who journeyed around her realm holding revivals in marketplaces and the countryside. The offending, unauthorized preachers were also punished.
And, an equal opportunity tyrant, Elizabeth also tried to root out, torture and kill suspected atheists. Christopher Marlowe – whether murdered at a Deptford inn or escaping to become “Shakespeare” – had been threatened with capital punishment for the heresy of inverting “God” in “dog.”
So, for that time, a call for the freedom to think on one’s own was a radical liberal notion.
Unfortunately, upon gaining power, these low-church Protestants – Separatists, Puritans, Congregationalists – proved just as intolerant as their oppressors had been toward them.
Gaining dominance first in the new American colonies – founding New England – they mandated church attendance and church tithing and the subjugation of all activities to their own tenets. Baptists and Quakers were enemies of the state. Massachusetts Puritans exiled Roger Williams into the wilds where he became the founder of Rhode Island and colonial religious tolerance.
Not so fortunate was Anne Hutchinson, exiled for teaching her interpretation of the Bible in her own home – and being an uppity woman for not accepting her lower place in society. She was later killed by Indians.
Williams made peace with his Native American neighbors and then welcomed other outcasts to his little enclave. Williams’ tolerance was not a kumbaya embracement of those who thought differently than he did. His tolerance was based upon his realization that imperfect people – as we all are – are as likely to make mistakes in theological matters as well as in everyday life.
Calling for “no persecution for cause of conscience,” he maintained that, since we cannot be certain we are right, we cannot be certain others are wrong. Thomas Jefferson restated this in his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.
And, of course, English Puritans, while abolishing a divine right monarchy, were just as rigid and intolerant when they gained power in the 1640s.
Religious bigotry was not limited to New England. My Edmondson ancestors were among the first Quakers, a multi-great uncle renowned for his Irish mission and our first arrival in the Americas providing the land for the first Society of Friends Meeting House on the continent.
Their initial prosperity was thwarted by anti-Quaker laws and the archetypal capitalistic practice of raid or trade depending upon the circumstances. Because Quakers refuse to swear oaths, their good neighbors felt free to cheat them in business dealings, knowing they could not – literally in good faith – take them to court where oaths were required.
Virginia demanded allegiance to the state-funded Church of England. Thus, it is no surprise that Virginian Thomas Jefferson, who believed “God hath created the mind free,” denounced established religion in his Virginia Statute, recognizing, as the minority religious views enshrined by our Supreme Court that boasts outright liars among its membership has demonstrated:
“That all attempts to influence (the mind) by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and therefore are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being Lord, both of body and mind yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do”
If God did force people to believe a certain way, it is certainly wrong for mere mortals to do so. It wasn’t until 1786 that the law was passed. Its conclusion opens:
“No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”
During the interim while the statute lingered, Jefferson and James Madison stopped Patrick Henry’s efforts to provide tax money to churches. Thus it is no surprise that Madison considered erecting Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state” important enough to be the opening declaration when he wrote the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Most people give lip service to the second part, the liberty of (their) conscience first proposed by Roger Williams. But, there have been continued efforts to tear down that “wall of separation.” Zealots proclaim their religions or interpretations as the only ones permissible and strive to force others to obey their rules whether they agree or not.
Our Supreme Court recently chose to ignore that first prohibition by allowing the limited, misogynistic religious views of certain state legislators to enforce their definition of the beginning of life on everyone else. This is a religious issue; different religions hold different definitions – with equal conviction.
This leads inevitably to breaking the second part of the amendment, where dissenters are now prohibited from the free exercise of their beliefs.
In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson observed: “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
Yes, women should have the free choice to treat their medical conditions as they, their doctors and their religions see fit. It doesn’t break my leg – or yours.
Other recent rulings by this very low high court open the door to proselytizing at government-funded school functions and giving a green light for states to impose tithes on all taxpayers to support the religious indoctrination at private schools (“sinful and tyrannical,” according to Jefferson), further eroding the wall of separation which our founders so valued and realized as necessary to protect independent thinkers’ efforts to preserve and protect our Constitution and the liberties it once guaranteed while freeing them to look forward instead of backwards.
(Duncan resident Gary Edmondson is chair of the Stephens County Democratic Party.)