Saint Mary's Chapel, Saint Mary City,
Maryland--the first Catholic Church in
English North America
The many Loudoun County citizens who place their belief in God and try to live a faith based life are being continually subjected to policy statements placed on our County Courthouse grounds by a myriad of atheistic organizations. Citizens of faith are infuriated by these policy laden signs, such as the one below, that have been erected at very regular intervals on the Loudoun County Courthouse grounds. These signs, for the most part, refer to God's non-existence, and denigrate those, who believe in God. So although, some would claim these signs profess our freedom of speech, the very regular and continued placement of them on the courthouse grounds are neither fair, nor civil to citizens of faith. We hope that our Loudoun County Supervisors takes this issue to heart, and more closely monitors its policy for permits to use the courthouse grounds for displays.
Now, remember the Knights started this situation when they organized a protest against a county policy that would have prohibited any displays on the Courthouse lawn. The Board of Supervisors backed down and agreed to allow ten displays allotted on a first come first serve basis. That was a huge mistake. The Knights’ protest backfired because the policy that would permit Christians to put up their annual Christmas displays also permitted people of other faiths and no faith to erect displays as well. Several Knights realized this fight was a mistake from the get-go and want to back-off from supporting displays on County property while others, like the gentleman who sent the above email, want religious displays to be allowed but not displays that advocate rationalism, agnosticism, or atheism. They are probably right that some of the displays that have been put on the public lawn make light of—if not mock—believers. That is not civil behavior but then civil behavior has never been part of Loudon culture where polemic has long outshouted reason, goin' back at least to the War Between the States. What they do not seem to realize is that you cannot allow one opinion access to the public space and bar others. And this is where I found a historical conundrum come to the fore. In the string of emails my correspondent forwarded to me a Loudon maven of some journalistic renown got into the fray insisting that the United States is a Judeo-Christian nation, and not only insisting but leaving no room for dissent. Barbara Curtis inserted herself into the conversation writing: There is also the fact that our nation is indeed a Judeo-Christian nation - there's no disputing that.
Are we a Judeo-Christian nation? I think that can well be disputed. There are various strands that go to make up our national identity. The three main colonial pillars on which today’s United States is built are the English, the Spanish, and the French. The English colonized the eastern seaboard from Georgia to what is now New Hampshire extending westward to the Appalachians; the Spanish colonized Florida and from what is now Texas north to Kansas and west to include California and everything in between. The French colonized Maine, Vermont and the Mississippi Valley from what is now Wisconsin down to New Orleans and including the Ohio Valley up to the Great Lakes including western Pennsylvania and upstate New York. The Spanish influence in Florida was neither pervasive nor long-lasting and the French influence faded except in Louisiana. However, the Spanish influence in the Southwest is stronger today than what remains of English influence along the Eastern seaboard. All three of these colonial powers were Christian nations though the Catholic Spaniards and French would not have accorded that honor to the Protestant English and the Protestant English would not have considered the papist French and Spaniards to be true Christians.
Other than in Louisiana where French influence is still strong on the law, our American legal system is borrowed and adapted from the English. Our Constitutional heritage, while it has developed differently—and significantly so—from the British, is shaped by Enlightenment Rationalism that was all the rage in English Coffee houses and French salons of the eighteenth century. It was also influenced, especially as regards the Bill of Rights, in Magna Carta and the consequent English understanding of the relationship of public government and private rights. (While we all talk about rights, no one speaks of corresponding duties which is a tragic flaw of our republican tradition.) So basically we need to focus on the English heritage more than the French and Spanish to determine the nature of our nation if we want to talk about “nation” in the political sense. And in this whole dispute about access to public space on a Courthouse lawn, we are speaking in a political sense.
Are we a Judeo-Christian nation? Well again, we need to look at the various strands of English tradition out of which the political structure of the United States was formed. When one reads Jonathan Winthrop’s “City on a Hill” speech (actually a sermon entitled A Modell of Christian Charity (“Modell” being his spelling, not mine) we can see that the Puritans came to Massachusetts Bay explicitly to establish a Christian Commonwealth. Of course, there would be no Courthouse crèche issue with them as they banned Christmas altogether. It was a “papist” holiday. Initially the Governor, William Bradford, instructed non-Puritan members of the colony that any celebration had to be confined to the privacy of their homes. In 1647, during the Puritan Government of Oliver Cromwell in England, New England Puritans passed a law criminalizing celebrating the day in the colony. In 1669 a five shilling fine was imposed on anyone in Massachusetts celebrating the day. So the Massachusetts heritage would say: Christian yes; Christmas no. Rhode Island was an escape colony for Massachusetts residents who found Puritanism not to their taste. Roger Williams and the other founders of the Rhode Island colony rejected Puritanism to become Baptists. In the Baptist tradition they favored individual conscience over law and thus declared freedom of religion for Rhode Island. I am not sure whether this freedom of conscience extended to Catholics or not but America’s first synagogue is Touro Synagogue in Newport, built in 1763. Now that date is fairly late for what we are talking about but it is a sign of authentic religious freedom that Jews as well as Christians were granted freedom of worship. There is no record of Catholic Worship in Rhode Island until the time of the American Revolution. Rhode Island Baptists were strict on the separation of Church and State as the Baptist tradition has been in general up until the last thirty years when increasingly, like Evangelicals and some Catholics, more and more Baptists, especially Southern Baptists, want Christian practices enshrined in civil law.
Pennsylvania was settled by Quakers who did practice religious tolerance for all, including Catholics. There was no “Established Church” in Pennsylvania which functioned with separation of Church and government. New York and Virginia were Anglican colonies where the Church of England was established by law and the clergy were salaried by the government. Catholicism was illegal in both colonies, but Christmas was not. In the Anglican tradition, Christmas was a big thing: Church in the morning and dead drunk in the afternoon. That, incidentally, explains why Puritans made Christmas illegal. This was a time when Anglicanism was still a Protestant religion and while it maintained a recognizably Catholic Liturgy and certain holydays such as Christmas, it eschewed such popish foppery as crosses on the altar much less a crèche on the lawn. Maryland was the sole Catholic colony and religious freedom was guaranteed by the Lord Proprietor to all Christians of whatever denomination. Catholicism was legal in Maryland—until the Cromwellian Interregnum in England when the Lord Proprietor was deprived of his authority—and then from the Restoration until the Glorious Revolution of 1688. After that Catholicism was, in practice though not in law, tolerated if practiced discreetly. During the Proprietorship of the Lords Baltimore, Catholicism was never an established Church. As for Maryland Christmases, Christmas was celebrated by the Anglicans and Catholics in their various houses of worship and together the rest of the day in manor houses and taverns as they both had a taste for the grog. While the Lord Proprietor was Catholic himself, there was no established Church in Maryland and the Jesuit priests who labored there supported themselves as other wealthy Marylanders by their plantations. The Carolinas and Georgia were nominally Anglican in their Royal Charters but religion didn’t catch on their much in colonial America. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, preached in Georgia as a young Anglican priest but it was only with the residue of the First Great Awakening that the colonists took to religion—mostly Methodist and Baptist preachers at the time of the American Revolution and subsequent decades. Perhaps it is wrong to say “the residue of the First Great Awakening” but it was several decades after the great preaching of Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield and it was just before the Second Great Awakening took off with the Cane Ridge Revival in Bourbon County (isn’t that ironic) Kentucky in 1801. Thus I think we can say that while each of the colonies had religious roots, only three: Massachusetts, Maryland, and Pennsylvania were founded for religious purposes and of these only one, Massachusetts, was founded to be a Christian society. We will have to look at our Founding Fathers and their religious practices and views in a future entry.