Sunday, January 22, 2012

Freedom From Religion and Freedom of Religion

"The Mass of Saint Denis" showing the
King of France at Mass in the Days of
the Alliance of Throne and Altar
We spent a considerable amount of time over the past month looking at the issue of whether or not the United States is “A Christian Nation.”   We demonstrated that there are two distinct traditions in American society.  The Pilgrim/Puritan tradition going back to John Winthrop’s famous “City Set on a Hill” speech to the Massachusetts Bay settlers aboard the Arbella in 1630 recognizes the explicitly Christian foundations and goals set for that colony by its founders. Among the founders of the Republic, most likely Sam Adams, Patrick Henry and Charles Carroll would have agreed.  On the other hand, the American Revolutionary tradition, epitomized by Thomas Jefferson in his Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and copied into James Madison’s Bill of Rights that became part of the United States Constitution would deny the new Republic to be a Christian nation—or an Islamic, Jewish, Buddhist or any other sort of religious nation.  In addition to Jefferson and Madison, this view would be consistent with the statements of Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, George Washington, and John Hancock.  Moreover, the Maryland Catholic tradition would argue for the religious neutrality of the State.  But this is the issue: religious neutrality.  The Revolutionary tradition does not ban religion from public life as some today would have it, but rather—in the words of Madison’s Bill of Rights, insists that: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  There are those who want to relegate religion solely to the sphere of private life, confining it to home and church.   That is no more consistent with our republican heritage than would be the recognition in law of the special place of any or all religion in the eyes of the government.  No more must we be a secular nation than should we be a Christian nation.  This requires a careful balance. 
     We must remember that there has been a long tradition of Christianity being the established religion in western societies.   Contrary to popular belief, the Emperor Constantine did not make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.  He gave the Christian religion legal recognition and freedom from the persecution it has sporadically been subjected to under the Roman Empire for over two centuries and he gave it, and its officials, many special privileges in Roman law. While Christianity was not the official religion of the Empire—under Constantine—the empire was not religiously neutral.  It was the official religion in several places.  King Tiridates III of Armenia had converted to Christianity through the preaching of Saint Gregory the Illuminator in 301 and made Christianity the official religion of is nation.  Abyssinia established Christianity as its official religion about a quarter-century later.  It was only in 380 that the Emperor Theodosius made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.  From that time on an alliance between Throne and Altar was normal in European countries whereby the State enforced the religious doctrines of the Church and the Church preached obedience to the State as a moral obligation.  At the time of the Protestant Reformations of the sixteenth-centuries the various national Churches had to choose their alliance—to the Roman Pontiff or to their respective kings.  Almost invariably the Churches stayed tied to the thrones that supported them.  Where the thrones themselves were content with the papal alliance, such as France, Spain, and the Empire this was no problem.   Where the thrones wanted to disentangle themselves from the Roman alliance, the Churches too became disentangled.  In each case, however, the Throne/Altar ties remained intact.  The Enlightenment challenged this alliance and developed an alternate model of the relationship of Church and State suggesting the States should allow a freedom of conscience whereby government would no longer consider itself responsible for maintaining the theological monopoly of any particular religion.  Most of the Enlightenment thinkers had already abandoned orthodox Christian doctrine, whether Protestant or Catholic, and wanted the freedom from religion more than freedom of religion.  The Churches of Protestant England and Scotland and Sweden found their positions undermined as much as the Catholic Churches of France, Spain, and Portugal but the Protestant nations and their national Churches were more likely to accommodate religious dissent than were the Catholic nations—despite the presence of many freethinkers in the royal governments of France, Spain, Portugal and the Hapsburg empire.  In part this was because Britain, Holland, and the Scandinavian kingdoms had learned to turn a somewhat blind eye to persistent Catholic minorities and had learned to live with a pluralism of belief (and disbelief).  The Catholic countries, on the other hand, were more ardent in pursuing and persecuting religious minorities and strove for religious conformity.  Consequently religious freedom came more easily in the Protestant countries than it did in Catholic countries. 
     The fruit of this in the British colonies in North America was a pretty universal conviction that while a particular Church might be established, the citizenry—as long as it remained orderly—might be allowed a freedom of conscience.  This awareness grew faster in some colonies than others.  Virginia was particularly slow in coming to such freedom,  harassing (persecuting) not only Catholics but Baptists and other non-conformists  almost to the eve of the American Revolution though the issue often appeared to be not doctrinal dissent but failure to pay tithes to the established Anglican clergy.  When the Revolution came, however, Virginia was among the first of the new States to disestablish its official Church and write religious liberty into law.  Maryland, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania supported freedom of conscience from the beginning.  When the new Republic was formed it was taken for granted in each State that citizens would be free to follow their own conscience.  That did not mean that the official churches were always disestablished.  Connecticut did not disestablish the Congregationalist Church until 1818; Massachusetts disestablished it only in 1833.  Anglicanism had been the established religion in Hawaii from 1862 but after the 1893 coup that ended the monarchy—and independence—making Hawaii an American colony the American colonial government, comprised of New England Congregationalists, disestablished it.  Several state constitutions still prohibit atheists from holding public office but a 1961 decision of the United States Supreme Court declared such provisions “unenforceable” as they would constitute a religious test probhiited by Article 6 of the United States Constitution which says in part: The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States. 

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