Religious intolerance is a very broad term. It can be as private and individual as a parent forbidding a child to date someone of a particular faith or as public as the historical tar-and-feathering of Joseph Smith, founder of the Mormon religion. In every case, however, it boils down to the actions or attitudes of individuals or organizations against others over differences in religious belief or practice. The United States has struggled with this since before its early colonial days and — despite the best efforts of our founders to foster a national culture that would provide what James Madison described as “an Asylum to the persecuted and oppressed of every Nation and Religion” — religious intolerance continues to be an all-too-common occurrence against which no group is immune. .
Muslims have long been the targets of discrimination in the U.S., but following the tragedies of 9/11, anti-Muslim sentiment and activity have risen sharply. Events such as the controversies surrounding the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” and Florida pastor, Terry Jones, who burned copies of the Quran, are well publicized but they are far from isolated incidents. The American Civil Liberties Union reports what they call “anti-mosque activities” in 31 states between December, 2005, and September, 2012, ranging in severity from simple graffiti and other minor vandalism to arson and bombings. In one case, a Muslim woman was verbally assaulted and pepper-sprayed in front of an Islamic center in Columbus, Ohio.
Despite its dominance among American faiths, Christians have been the victims of religious intolerance throughout our nation’s history and non-Protestant denominations — particularly Catholics and Mormons — have borne the brunt of it. The same conflagration that began with Joseph Smith’s tarring and feathering also saw massacres, the forced removal of Mormons from Missouri and, ultimately, the assassination of Smith and his brother in 1844. To this day, Mormons are regularly accused of condoning polygamy, despite the fact that the denomination, also known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has been one of the most vigorous opponents of the practice since 1890. Catholics, as well, have long been maligned by their fellow Americans. Many states had laws restricting Catholic civil rights, including the right to hold public office, and one of Benedict Arnold’s stated reasons for his betrayal was America’s alliance with Catholic France during the Revolution. Driven by nationalist fears of papal allegiance, riots and other violent incidents against Catholics persisted well into the 19th century.
The persecution of Jews throughout history stands, perhaps, as the epitome of religious intolerance and they’ve suffered it in the United States as they have almost everywhere else. A strong current of anti-Semitism has run through American society since it’s inception and came to a peak in the years leading up to World War II. At that time, according to historian Johnathan D. Sarna, “Jews faced physical attacks, many forms of discrimination, and intense vilification in print, on the airwaves, in movies, and on stage.” This period also saw the birth of Nazism both abroad and in the U.S., and violent, anti-Semitic activity continues to be a problem in the present day. Eighty percent of the 1400 religiously motivated hate crimes reported to the FBI in 1998 were “anti-Jewish” in nature.
Of all the groups that have experienced religious intolerance in what is now the United States, perhaps none have suffered longer than Native Americans. Beginning with some of their first interactions with European settlers, Native Americans were driven off ancestral lands for centuries, denied access to holy sites and forced to attend government-run schools in an effort to “kill the Indian and save the man”; students were typically divorced from all aspects of tribal culture, including religion and language. The final prohibitions against practicing Native American religions were lifted in 1994. Native religious leaders continue to be surveilled by government agencies and tribes still frequently lose access to sacred sites because of urban and industrial development. A 1999 Special Report to the UN Commission on Human Rights noted that such losses were often the result of “an indifference and even hostility on the part of the various officials and other parties involved . . . with regard to the values and beliefs of the original inhabitants of the United States.”
Secular Humanists and other Non-theists
A 2003 study by the University of Minnesota on the acceptance of various racial, religious and other groups in America, found nearly half of Americans (47.6 percent) would disapprove if their child wanted to marry an atheist. In addition, 39.6 percent said atheists “do not at all agree with my vision of American society.” A 2012 report by the International Humanist and Ethical Union found seven states with constitutional prohibitions against atheists holding office. In Arkansas, non-theists are legally disqualified from bearing witness in court, despite the fact that the Supreme Court declared such provisions unconstitutional in 1961. The report found many other examples of discrimination, particularly in the military, including mandatory attendance of religious services and service members not being allowed to list “Humanist” as their religious affiliation. Finally, Secular Humanists were denied representation at the interfaith memorial service on April 18, 2013, following the Boston Marathon bombing, despite the fact that at least two of the victims of the bombing were affiliated with Boston’s secular community.
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 Zero.
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 political.
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 every…man 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 country.”
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 denomination.”
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 afraid.”
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 wrote.
Thomas Jefferson’s last testament to his political, religious, and educational ideology is encapsulated by his self-ascribed epitaph: “Here lies Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and father of the University of Virginia.” . Fittingly, these three accomplishments are the culmination of Thomas Jefferson’s lifework, and reflect the progress he made in affecting American attitudes in each of these areas. Continue reading Thomas Jefferson: The Progressive Libertarian→
Islam is the world’s second largest religion. A 2012 Pew Research Center study estimates Islam has 1.6 billion adherents, making up over 23% of the world population. Conversely, there are less than 2.4 million suspected Muslim terrorists in the World. Less than one third of these militants have declared Jihad on the West.
The Hezbollah Party in Lebanon is generally agreed by Western intelligence agencies to have the largest terrorist capabilities in the World. Surprisingly, there are no membership estimates. However, based on the common knowledge that Hezbollah is a Shi’ite organization, and the estimates that the Shi’ites represent approximately 27% of the Lebanese population, if every Shia in Lebanon was a member of Hezbollah, at most, the party would have an estimated 1,588,292 members. Nevertheless, Hezbollah activities are known to be limited to the Palestinian struggle with Israel and unlike the extremist groups seeking to impose Sharia Law, Hezbollah does not promote an Anti-Western, Anti-Christian Agenda.
The rest of the known Muslim terrorist organizations in the Middle East which advocate strict Sharia government, total less than 764,500 members. The Muslim Brotherhood (which surprisingly the U.S. does not designate as a terrorist organization) claims 500,000 adherents; Jaish al-Islam (Syria) ranges anywhere between 5,000-50,000 members; the Tehrik-i-Taliban (Pakistan) has less than 35,000 members; The Taliban (Afghanistan) has an estimated 25,000-36,000 fighters; ISIS (Syria) can ‘muster’ between 20,000 and 31,500 fighters; Ahrar al-Sham has an estimated 10,000-20,000 members; Boko Haram (Yobe State) has an estimated 10,000-15,000 members; The Haqquani Network (Afghanistan) has an estimated 10,000 members; Lashkar-e-Zill (Afghanistan) has an estimated 10,000 members; Liwa al-Tawhid (Syria) has an estimated 8,000-10,000 members; Suqour al-Sham (Syria) has an estimated 9,000-10,000 members; the military wing of Hamas (Palestine) has an estimated 10,000 operatives; Jabhat al-Nusra (Syria) has an estimated 5,000-7,000 operatives; Al Shabab (Somalia) has an estimated 3,000-5,000 members; Lashkar-e-Taiba is estimated to have “several thousand” members; Ansar al-Sham (Syria) has approximately 2,500 fighters; the Jamiat-ul-Mujahideen (Bangladesh), at it’s peak, had approximately 2,000 members; Hizbul-Mujahideen (Kashmir) has an estimated 1500 operatives; Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (Pakistan) has less than 1000 members; Jemaah Islamiyah (Indonesia) has less than 1000 members; Al-Qaeda has an estimated 500-1000 operatives; Ansar al-Islam (Iraq) has 500-1000 members; Harkat-ul-Jihadi al-Islami (Pakistan has 500-700 members; Abu Sayyaf (Philippines) has 200-500 members; Harakat-ul-Mujahedeen (Pakistan) has an estimated 300 members; Jaish-e-Muhammad (Pakistan) has “several hundred” armed volunteers; and Al-Badr (Kashmir) has an estimated 200 operatives.
These numbers reflect that less than .0015% of Muslims would qualify as members of suspected terrorist organizations. Less than .0005% would be of the Anti-Western Jihadist persuasion. Put another way, 99.9995% of Muslims are not Anti-Western militant extremists.
The United States has a population of approximately 320 million people. Approximately 6/10 of one percent of the population is Muslim, for a total of two million Muslims in the U.S. If the numbers above hold up, out of 2 million Muslims, there would potentially be as many as 1000 militant Muslims in the U.S., with as few as 40 of them being a member of ISIS. This means 1 out of every 1999 Muslims you meet in America might harbor anti-Western extremist views. More importantly, this means 1998 out of 1999 do not. If we limit the conversation to members of ISIS, these numbers would skyrocket. Statistically speaking, the odds of a U.S. Muslim being a member of ISIS would increase to 1 in 50,000.
To place these numbers in the proper perspective, if the average American met one new Muslim per day, on the average, you would only meet one militant Muslim every 5 1/2 years. You would average one member of ISIS every 138 years.
So as we are bombarded with all the rhetoric and sensationalist claims designed to persuade us that these 40 statistical anomalies are the biggest threat the U.S. has ever faced, let us please remember that it is the terrorists who are the threat and not the Muslims.
John Locke’s “The Reasonableness of Christianity,” is the unification of enlightenment era idealism with traditional Christian thought. Locke’s assertion of the freedom of the individual believer and his call for tolerance in doctrinal differences lead to a uniquely modern interpretation of the Holy Scriptures. Deemed by many to be a defense of Christianity, “The Reasonableness of Christianity” comes across to this reader as Locke’s attempt to reconcile his own philosophical views with his personal religious faith.
Locke advocates the individual freedom of the believer in non-essential matters of religious conviction: “The law of faith … is for everyone to believe what God requires him to believe as a condition of the covenant he makes with him.” . To Locke, the Christian faith consisted of the acknowledgement of fundamental precepts that were necessary for the attainment of eternal security, and of supplemental spiritual truths in which we are only regulated by the revelation we are given. This allows for a certain amount of freedom of belief within Christianity.
Locke’s evaluation of the Bible is that only the direct instruction of Christ and the apostles, contained in the Gospels and Acts, are to be trusted as the necessary components of salvation. Locke makes a distinction between the “fundamental articles” of faith revealed in the Gospels and the instructions to the Christian community contained in the epistles to the churches. . For lack of a term provided by Locke, I will label these primary, and secondary teachings. The primary doctrines which Locke deems necessary for salvation are faith in the eternal God of scripture, as evidenced by repentance and a return to morality, and belief in the messiahship and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The secondary teachings are those moral precepts that are espoused by Paul and the other early church fathers through their instructions to the infant churches. Locke values these teachings as useful truths to the observance of the Christian faith, but unnecessary for entering into the covenant of salvation with God. .
According to Locke, salvation is a restoration of the immortality and state of bliss that was lost to humanity by the fall of Adam: “as Adam was turned out of paradise, so all his posterity were born out of it, out of the reach of the tree of life; all, like their father Adam in a state of morality, void of the tranquility and bliss of paradise.” . Locke acknowledges that this original act of disobedience tainted humanity, but contends that the penalty enacted upon future generations was not a state of guilt, but a state of mortality. . The idea that God would impose a penalty upon Adam’s posterity for an act they did not commit offends Locke‘s notion of divine justice. This is where I believe that Locke’s theology breaks down. His argument presupposes that eternal damnation is the consequence of a penalty imposed, rather than a state of separation which exists between God and humanity. It can be reasonably argued that humanity is not so much penalized, but rather voluntarily removes itself from God’s providence and protection, returning us to the original state of chaos which existed prior to the act of creation.
Whichever state existed after the fall, Locke conjectures that Jesus Christ was the Messiah promised by scripture, whose purpose was to restore the original condition of humanity. Locke argues that belief in this restoration is a fundamental requirement of “saving faith,” reasoning that this is the only requirement for salvation set forth by “Our Savior and his apostles.” . Locke asserts a “threefold declaration of the Messiah” through the miracles performed by Christ, his fulfillment of the prophecies, and his proclamation of the doctrine of the Messiah. . This provides Locke with sufficient proof of the identity of Jesus, and the validity of his teachings. Locke’s dependence on the use of scripture to validate scripture is an obvious shortcoming in his contention that the truth of Christianity can be attained objectively through human reason.
The innovation of “The Reasonableness of Christianity” is in Locke’s supposition that humanity would be incapable of constructing an equitable system of morality without the aid of divine revelation. Locke reproves previous religions for their failure to instill virtue, maintaining that prior to the advent of Christianity, organized religion did little more than advocate proper observance of rituals. Locke also faults philosophy for its unsuccessful attempts to produce an organization of ethics comparable to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Locke finds Christian morality to be the most substantive and comprehensive system ever proposed to humanity.
Locke’s theological essay serves as a testament to the influence of the Age of Reason upon traditional Christian beliefs. Its success lies not in Locke’s defense of traditional Christian beliefs, but in its call for theological reform. It is a challenge to reassess traditional Christian values to accommodate the enlightened ideals of freedom, individuality and tolerance.
By Lawrence Christopher Skufca (2008)
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. John Locke. 1695. “The Reasonableness of Christianity.” (Stanford University Press: Stanford, CA): 32.
. Ibid., 32, 43-44.
. Ibid., 43.
. Ibid., 27.
. Ibid., 26-27.
. Ibid., 43.
. Ibid., 37.
“If we desire respect for the law, we must first make the law respectable.” – U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis