This essay appeared in the February 2008 issue of The American Spectator.
(This essay appeared in the February 2008 issue of The American Spectator.)
THERE IS, PERHAPS, no other area of American life in which we claim to be so thoroughly united. And there is almost certainly no other area in American life in which we are, in fact, so vexingly divided.
Ask nearly anyone if there’s religious liberty in America and you’ll get some version of The Myth: The Pilgrims came from England in search of religious freedom. They found it in Plymouth Colony, took a break for Thanksgiving Dinner, then somebody passed the First Amendment and we all lived happily ever after. Push back ever so slightly and the cognitive dissonance will begin. The culture war? Yes, well, we all would be living happily ever after if it weren’t for the crazies who just don’t get it and are trying to shove—pick either (a) “separation of church and state” or (b) “their religion”—down our throats.
Ask either set of “crazies” whether it’s really true that they oppose religious liberty? More dissonance. Nobody will ever admit to opposing religious freedom for all. On the contrary, everyone will steadfastly insist they absolutely love the stuff—which is why they are so nobly defending it against the unscrupulous fanatics on the other side.
Pose the big questions, extreme dissonance. Where does religious liberty come from? Why, it’s a natural right that the First Amendment gives us. And just what does it protect? Social harmony, by allowing—pick either (a) “only the true religion” or (b) “no religion whatsoever”—to be expressed in public culture.
In short, as a society, we’re at wits’ end. We assume we must understand something so basic to our heritage as religious freedom. But when we actually take a look at it, all the philosophical and legal lines seem to blur and to overlap each other. Let’s face it: when it comes to religious liberty, we really don’t know what we think.
THAT IS A VERY PRECARIOUS position to be in. The cognitive dissonance might be vaguely laughable if these questions weren’t so urgent. But our growing religious diversity makes them not just urgent, but positively dire. If we were living in the Vatican City State, or perhaps in a remote mountain village in Utah, we would likely not find ourselves having to debate the origins and meaning of religious freedom. The fact is, however, we are living in the most religiously diverse society in the history of the world. It is becoming more diverse by the day. And some of our new neighbors seem deadly serious about their beliefs. Literally. Now more than ever, it is essential that we know what we think about religious liberty.
A quick tour of our history will reveal the sources of our present confusion. It will demonstrate that The Myth is, well, a myth. There has never been a golden age of religious tranquility in America. There has always been religious competition, even on board the Mayflower itself. And judging from all the failed attempts at outlawing it, there always will be. That is so, moreover, not because we have up ’til now somehow lacked the ingenuity to discover how to stifle religious competition. It is because it is impossible. There will always be religious competition because we human beings are conscience-driven creatures who have a built-in thirst for truth and goodness, and find ourselves duty-bound to embrace and express the truth and goodness we think we know. Learning from our historic failures will also point the way forward. As we’ll see, religious liberty is not now, and never has been, the recipe for eliminating religious competition. On the contrary, it’s the built-in rulebook for how the game is played.
We’ll also discover the roots of judicial confusion over religious freedom. At the end of the day, we’ll see that, legally, religion in America is a lot like sex, race, or ethnicity in America. We don’t deal with diversity by pretending we are all male. We don’t deal with it by pretending we are all white. We don’t deal with it by pretending we are all Irish. Why should we have to deal with religious diversity by pretending we are all agnostic?
Our Story So Far
The nickel tour of religion in America really does start with the Pilgrims. They just look a little different than they did in your second-grade Thanksgiving pageant. For one thing, their halos need a little adjusting.
The Pilgrims came from England, yes, but largely by way of Holland. The leaders aboard the Mayflower had fled from England to Holland ten years earlier, and were no longer being persecuted. In Holland, they enjoyed all the toleration they could have wished for, and then some. Their great enemy now was assimilation. As their leader, William Bradford related in his journal, “owing to a great licentiousness of the youth in that country,” and to the “manifold temptations of the place,” their children were being corrupted. In deciding to leave Holland for the American wilderness, they were not fleeing persecution at all, but permissiveness.
Nor were they seeking religious freedom in some abstract sense. They were largely after real estate on which to build their own little colony, a refuge where they could be free from the corrupting influences of the impure and could govern themselves according to their own vision of the truth. Think of them as Amish Calvinists. The great irony was that in order to be able to afford fleeing impurity, they had to accept the terms of the London financiers who were backing their adventure. Those terms included demands that the Pilgrims bring along with them experts in dealing with the various technical challenges a new colony could be expected to face. In short, they had to bring impurity along in order to leave it behind.
The result was a prickly voyage aboard the Mayflower as the “Saints,” which is what the Pilgrims called themselves, squabbled with the “Strangers,” which was how they referred to everybody else. It’s easy to envision the scene. There, in the hold of a cramped ship, sat two stubborn groups, arms crossed, grimly eyeing one another. The Saints were dismayed. They had fled England for Holland, and now Holland for the wilderness, all to get away from impurity—and impurity had tagged along. Now what? For their part, the Strangers were glum. They had left their homes and their country not out of any great spiritual motive, but simply because this was the best job they could find. And, here they were, stuck on a boat with a bunch of holier-than-thou zealots. And soon they would all go off to live in the woods together. Great. Just great. How could this possibly work?
There, in miniature, is the question we still face: How do you live together with people when you disagree with them about what life means in the first place? The answer the Pilgrims came up with was vintage 17th century: The way to live together with people you disagreed with was by suppressing the heretics. Social harmony demanded a religious monopoly.
Throughout its early history, Plymouth Colony established state-supported churches, which all residents were required to attend and to support with their taxes. What’s more, only members of those churches could vote or hold public office in the colony. But one could not simply join those churches at will. Membership was controlled by the churches themselves. The result was that, at one point in the colony’s history, fully 3,000 people attended the official churches in Plymouth and supported them with their taxes. But only 230 of them could vote or hold public office. And when an Anglican cleric showed up and tried to organize a competing Sunday service, he was promptly deported.