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USA: The tradition of America’s religious tolerance

Tuesday 28 September 2010, by siawi2

America’s True History of Religious Tolerance:
The idea that the United States has always been a
bastion of religious freedom is reassuring-and utterly
at odds with the historical record

By Kenneth C. Davis

Smithsonian magazine,
October 2010

Wading into the controversy surrounding an Islamic
center planned for a site near New York City’s Ground
Zero memorial this past August, President Obama
declared: "This is America. And our commitment to
religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle
that people of all faiths are welcome in this country
and that they will not be treated differently by their
government is essential to who we are." In doing so, he
paid homage to a vision that politicians and preachers
have extolled for more than two centuries-that America
historically has been a place of religious tolerance. It
was a sentiment George Washington voiced shortly after
taking the oath of office just a few blocks from Ground

But is it so?

In the storybook version most of us learned in school,
the Pilgrims came to America aboard the Mayflower in
search of religious freedom in 1620. The Puritans soon
followed, for the same reason. Ever since these
religious dissidents arrived at their shining "city upon
a hill," as their governor John Winthrop called it,
millions from around the world have done the same,
coming to an America where they found a welcome melting
pot in which everyone was free to practice his or her
own faith.

The problem is that this tidy narrative is an American
myth. The real story of religion in America’s past is an
often awkward, frequently embarrassing and occasionally
bloody tale that most civics books and high-school texts
either paper over or shunt to the side. And much of the
recent conversation about America’s ideal of religious
freedom has paid lip service to this comforting tableau.

From the earliest arrival of Europeans on America’s
shores, religion has often been a cudgel, used to
discriminate, suppress and even kill the foreign, the
“heretic” and the “unbeliever”-including the “heathen”
natives already here. Moreover, while it is true that
the vast majority of early-generation Americans were
Christian, the pitched battles between various
Protestant sects and, more explosively, between
Protestants and Catholics, present an unavoidable
contradiction to the widely held notion that America is
a “Christian nation.”

First, a little overlooked history: the initial
encounter between Europeans in the future United States
came with the establishment of a Huguenot (French
Protestant) colony in 1564 at Fort Caroline (near modern
Jacksonville, Florida). More than half a century before
the Mayflower set sail, French pilgrims had come to
America in search of religious freedom.

The Spanish had other ideas. In 1565, they established a
forward operating base at St. Augustine and proceeded to
wipe out the Fort Caroline colony. The Spanish
commander, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, wrote to the
Spanish King Philip II that he had "hanged all those we
had found in [Fort Caroline] because...they were
scattering the odious Lutheran doctrine in these
Provinces." When hundreds of survivors of a shipwrecked
French fleet washed up on the beaches of Florida, they
were put to the sword, beside a river the Spanish called
Matanzas (“slaughters”). In other words, the first
encounter between European Christians in America ended
in a blood bath.

The much-ballyhooed arrival of the Pilgrims and Puritans
in New England in the early 1600s was indeed a response
to persecution that these religious dissenters had
experienced in England. But the Puritan fathers of the
Massachusetts Bay Colony did not countenance tolerance
of opposing religious views. Their “city upon a hill”
was a theocracy that brooked no dissent, religious or

The most famous dissidents within the Puritan community,
Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, were banished
following disagreements over theology and policy. From
Puritan Boston’s earliest days, Catholics (“Papists”)
were anathema and were banned from the colonies, along
with other non-Puritans. Four Quakers were hanged in
Boston between 1659 and 1661 for persistently returning
to the city to stand up for their beliefs.

Throughout the colonial era, Anglo-American antipathy
toward Catholics-especially French and Spanish
Catholics-was pronounced and often reflected in the
sermons of such famous clerics as Cotton Mather and in
statutes that discriminated against Catholics in matters
of property and voting. Anti-Catholic feelings even
contributed to the revolutionary mood in America after
King George III extended an olive branch to French
Catholics in Canada with the Quebec Act of 1774, which
recognized their religion.

When George Washington dispatched Benedict Arnold on a
mission to court French Canadians’ support for the
American Revolution in 1775, he cautioned Arnold not to
let their religion get in the way. "Prudence, policy and
a true Christian Spirit,“Washington advised,”will lead
us to look with compassion upon their errors, without
insulting them." (After Arnold betrayed the American
cause, he publicly cited America’s alliance with
Catholic France as one of his reasons for doing so.)

In newly independent America, there was a crazy quilt of
state laws regarding religion. In Massachusetts, only
Christians were allowed to hold public office, and
Catholics were allowed to do so only after renouncing
papal authority. In 1777, New York State’s constitution
banned Catholics from public office (and would do so
until 1806). In Maryland, Catholics had full civil
rights, but Jews did not. Delaware required an oath
affirming belief in the Trinity. Several states,
including Massachusetts and South Carolina, had
official, state-supported churches.

In 1779, as Virginia’s governor, Thomas Jefferson had
drafted a bill that guaranteed legal equality for
citizens of all religions-including those of no
religion-in the state. It was around then that Jefferson
famously wrote, "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." But
Jefferson’s plan did not advance-until after Patrick
(“Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death”) Henry introduced a
bill in 1784 calling for state support for "teachers of
the Christian religion."

Future President James Madison stepped into the breach.
In a carefully argued essay titled "Memorial and
Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments," the soon-
to-be father of the Constitution eloquently laid out
reasons why the state had no business supporting
Christian instruction. Signed by some 2,000 Virginians,
Madison’s argument became a fundamental piece of
American political philosophy, a ringing endorsement of
the secular state that "should be as familiar to
students of American history as the Declaration of
Independence and the Constitution," as Susan Jacoby has
written in Freethinkers, her excellent history of
American secularism.

Among Madison’s 15 points was his declaration that "the
Religion then of every man must be left to the
conviction and conscience of to exercise it
as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an
inalienable right."

Madison also made a point that any believer of any
religion should understand: that the government sanction
of a religion was, in essence, a threat to religion.
“Who does not see,” he wrote, "that the same authority
which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all
other Religions, may establish with the same ease any
particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other
Sects?" Madison was writing from his memory of Baptist
ministers being arrested in his native Virginia.

As a Christian, Madison also noted that Christianity had
spread in the face of persecution from worldly powers,
not with their help. Christianity, he contended,
"disavows a dependence on the powers of this world...for
it is known that this Religion both existed and
flourished, not only without the support of human laws,
but in spite of every opposition from them."

Recognizing the idea of America as a refuge for the
protester or rebel, Madison also argued that Henry’s
proposal was "a departure from that generous policy,
which offering an Asylum to the persecuted and oppressed
of every Nation and Religion, promised a lustre to our

After long debate, Patrick Henry’s bill was defeated,
with the opposition outnumbering supporters 12 to 1.
Instead, the Virginia legislature took up Jefferson’s
plan for the separation of church and state. In 1786,
the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom,
modified somewhat from Jefferson’s original draft,
became law. The act is one of three accomplishments
Jefferson included on his tombstone, along with writing
the Declaration and founding the University of Virginia.
(He omitted his presidency of the United States.) After
the bill was passed, Jefferson proudly wrote that the
law "meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its
protection, the Jew, the Gentile, the Christian and the
Mahometan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every

Madison wanted Jefferson’s view to become the law of the
land when he went to the Constitutional Convention in
Philadelphia in 1787. And as framed in Philadelphia that
year, the U.S. Constitution clearly stated in Article VI
that federal elective and appointed officials "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."

This passage-along with the facts that the Constitution
does not mention God or a deity (except for a pro forma
“year of our Lord” date) and that its very first
amendment forbids Congress from making laws that would
infringe of the free exercise of religion-attests to the
founders’ resolve that America be a secular republic.
The men who fought the Revolution may have thanked
Providence and attended church regularly-or not. But
they also fought a war against a country in which the
head of state was the head of the church. Knowing well
the history of religious warfare that led to America’s
settlement, they clearly understood both the dangers of
that system and of sectarian conflict.

It was the recognition of that divisive past by the
founders-notably Washington, Jefferson, Adams and
Madison-that secured America as a secular republic. As
president, Washington wrote in 1790: "All possess alike
liberty of conscience and immunity of citizenship.
...For happily the Government of the United States,
which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no
assistance requires only that they who live under its
protection should demean themselves as good citizens."

He was addressing the members of America’s oldest
synagogue, the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island
(where his letter is read aloud every August). In
closing, he wrote specifically to the Jews a phrase that
applies to Muslims as well: "May the children of the
Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to
merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants,
while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine
and figtree, and there shall be none to make him

As for Adams and Jefferson, they would disagree
vehemently over policy, but on the question of religious
freedom they were united. “In their seventies,” Jacoby
writes, "with a friendship that had survived serious
political conflicts, Adams and Jefferson could look back
with satisfaction on what they both considered their
greatest achievement-their role in establishing a
secular government whose legislators would never be
required, or permitted, to rule on the legality of
theological views."

Late in his life, James Madison wrote a letter
summarizing his views: "And I have no doubt that every
new example, will succeed, as every past one has done,
in shewing that religion & Govt. will both exist in
greater purity, the less they are mixed together."

While some of America’s early leaders were models of
virtuous tolerance, American attitudes were slow to
change. The anti-Catholicism of America’s Calvinist past
found new voice in the 19th century. The belief widely
held and preached by some of the most prominent
ministers in America was that Catholics would, if
permitted, turn America over to the pope. Anti-Catholic
venom was part of the typical American school day, along
with Bible readings. In Massachusetts, a convent-
coincidentally near the site of the Bunker Hill
Monument-was burned to the ground in 1834 by an anti-
Catholic mob incited by reports that young women were
being abused in the convent school. In Philadelphia, the
City of Brotherly Love, anti-Catholic sentiment,
combined with the country’s anti-immigrant mood, fueled
the Bible Riots of 1844, in which houses were torched,
two Catholic churches were destroyed and at least 20
people were killed.

At about the same time, Joseph Smith founded a new
American religion-and soon met with the wrath of the
mainstream Protestant majority. In 1832, a mob tarred
and feathered him, marking the beginning of a long
battle between Christian America and Smith’s Mormonism.
In October 1838, after a series of conflicts over land
and religious tension, Missouri Governor Lilburn Boggs
ordered that all Mormons be expelled from his state.
Three days later, rogue militiamen massacred 17 church
members, including children, at the Mormon settlement of
Haun’s Mill. In 1844, a mob murdered Joseph Smith and
his brother Hyrum while they were jailed in Carthage,
Illinois. No one was ever convicted of the crime.

Even as late as 1960, Catholic presidential candidate
John F. Kennedy felt compelled to make a major speech
declaring that his loyalty was to America, not the pope.
(And as recently as the 2008 Republican primary
campaign, Mormon candidate Mitt Romney felt compelled to
address the suspicions still directed toward the Church
of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.) Of course,
America’s anti-Semitism was practiced institutionally as
well as socially for decades. With the great threat of
“godless” Communism looming in the 1950s, the country’s
fear of atheism also reached new heights.

America can still be, as Madison perceived the nation in
1785, "an Asylum to the persecuted and oppressed of
every Nation and Religion." But recognizing that deep
religious discord has been part of America’s social DNA
is a healthy and necessary step. When we acknowledge
that dark past, perhaps the nation will return to that
“promised...lustre” of which Madison so grandiloquently

Kenneth C. Davis is the author of Don’t Know Much About
History and A Nation Rising, among other books.


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