Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Founding Fathers Supported Religious Freedom, Not Religious Tyranny

By Dale Bowling

Lately the headlines have been all about how terrible the sequester is- and trust me, it is terrible. There's been back and forth about gun laws. Immigration. Some climate change things. There have been some gotchas back and forth and the regular course of phony outrage coming from one side or the other. Well from one side anyway. But in all, there has been a tiny controversy that you probably haven't read about.

The American Atheists put up a billboard with a picture of Sarah Palin and misquoted her. The billboard had Mrs. Palin saying that "We should create law based on the God of the Bible". They had quotation marks and everything. But as it turns out that was not a direct quote, merely a summation of what the Founding Fathers were saying in her opinion. The American Atheists have since corrected their error.

There are several morals of this story. One, the American Atheists were wrong to put quotes around that as if she said those very words. She did not. Had they left off the quotes, they would have been absolutely right. That was the point she was making because if one reads the entire unhinged rant quote from her, it's obvious that she agrees with that.

The second moral almost goes without saying: Sarah Palin doesn't know what the hell she's talking about.

The Founding Fathers made lots of public statements about God and Providence. That is true. But the Bible did not serve an inspiration for law in this country and the Founders worked diligently to prevent one religious faction from making the others do as it did. There were two reasons for that.

One was the sheer impossibility of it. There were dozens of sects in the United States at the advent of the Republic and no one group had the upper hand so as to force the others to do as they did. The coalition that made up America was plenty fragile enough without alienating one religious group over another by promoting uniform Biblical interpretations. The Early Republic had enough on its plate without opening that Pandora's Box.

The other reason lies in the shared history of the Founders of our Republic. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (recent history to the Founding Fathers) had seen unprecedented carnage in the name of religion. Name the European country and it had been riven with war and destruction over what the Bible meant. The Thirty Years' War of the seventeenth century produced the most deaths of any war in human history until WWI. It took decades for western Germany to recover from it. It was this war that sent a lot of German immigrants to Pennsylvania, our Pennsylvania Dutch. Many Massachusetts settlers had ended up here because of the religious instability in England. Scotch-Irish, the second largest ethnicity in America, had largely fled Ulster over demands they conform to English religious practice. Maryland was settled by English Catholics fleeing persecution. French Protestants left France in droves after religious toleration ended there. A lot of them came here, where they could go to church in peace without anyone telling them what to do or what to believe. And even a few Jews arrived here, leaving behind a life where they lived in constant fear of what the authorities or the local populace might do to them because of their religious beliefs.

America was a haven, a virtual paradise for religious refugees. No one told people how to worship here. They weren't taxed to support someone else's religion as was the norm in Europe. They could do as they pleased. The Founding Fathers sought to support that, not upend it by mandating what people should believe by basing law on their own Biblical interpretations.

Jefferson famously stated that it didn't matter to him whether his neighbor had twenty gods or no god. It didn't "pick my pocket or break my leg". Madison was the one who created the phrase "wall of separation of church and state".  Adams said that the whole of religion was to "be good". These were not zealots.

The Founding Fathers believed that religious matters were personal. That no one group should tell the others how to live their lives - because they remembered what a disaster that had been in Europe.

It is not the business of government to tell other people what to believe in terms of religion. What sort of tyranny would that be? What would that say to people who do not worship the "God of the Bible" to be bound by laws derived from Him? It would say, "you're just not quite as American as the rest of us". That is what it would say.

The problem is that a great many people who currently talk about religious freedom believe that they can't have religious freedom unless they make everyone else do as they would do.

That's actually called religious tyranny and that was what our Founding Fathers were attempting to avoid.

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