The “Forgotten” History of Religious Pluralism in America

The “Forgotten” History of Religious Pluralism in America
David Roy

Our nation’s chief Fear Inflamers, whose normal speed is over-drive, have shifted into over-over-drive in their attempts to attack and destroy the possibility of relocating a major New York City mosque a few blocks closer to Ground Zero.

The real purpose of these attacks appears to be aimed at winning elections by damaging the reputations of those who support this move by labeling them as dim-witted, insensitive, elitist, self-destructive enemies of the state.

Inflammatory Attacks Undermine the Constitution
These attacks are deliberately inflammatory and antithetical to America’s historically unique and foundational principle of religious freedom. Some of those who have been quoted the most frequently are Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin:

  • There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia. The time for double standards that allow Islamists to behave aggressively toward us while they demand our weakness and submission is over.…America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization. Sadly, too many of our elites are the willing apologists for those who would destroy them if they could.…No mosque. No self-deception. No surrender. [Gingrich]
  • All right, the terrorists have won, ladies and gentlemen, a 9-0 vote by the Landmarks Preservation Commission of New York clearing the way for a mosque to be built at the site of Ground Zero.…Everybody’s falling for this notion that there’s Muslim outreach going on. This is not Muslim outreach. They’re planting the flag of victory with this mosque.  That’s what they’re doing.  Opening a mosque at Ground Zero?  That says we won.  That’s what’s going on here.  [Limbaugh]
  • Ground Zero Mosque supporters: Doesn’t it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate.* [The revision:] Peace-seeking Muslims, please understand, Ground Zero mosque is UNNECESSARY provocation; it stabs hearts. Pls reject it in interest of healing [Palin]

*A new Palinism that she likened to a Shakespearean ability to create a neologism.

Don’t We All Study the Constitution in High School?
As every high school student in the U.S. is required to take a course or two covering US history, during which time our Constitution is at least glanced at and the sub-ject of at least one test, the above viewpoints could only be due to one of the following: These three former students failed this course (and should not have been permitted to graduate) or at the very least need a refresher. Or, they are deliberately distorting the truth for effect.

Whether it is due to ignorance or deliberate distortion, their words make an enormous mockery of a crucial and sharply painful process of growth toward tolerance in the colonial prehistory of our nation.

The Principle of Religious Freedom Evolved
The principle of religious freedom did not arrive whole and intact on our shores some 400 years ago. What did start arriving were various groups, the key ones of which wanted freedom from persecution in order to practice the religion of their choice. This did not mean they started out being nice to those who did not believe as they did. Quite the opposite.

The end result, which we call freedom of religion, was the final step in a long, contentious and sometimes bloody struggle. While this principle was refined and included in the first amendment to the Constitution (in the Bill of Rights), this end result was not at all certain in the early years.

Religious Freedom Means Diversity and No State Control
The principle itself is more complex than we sometimes consider because, in order to have religious freedom, not only do we as a nation have to permit others to practice and worship in ways many of us might find ridiculous, wrong-headed, even evil. We also must keep government and religion totally

Just as there can be no theocracy (a state religion that governs, such as in Iran), likewise there can be no secular state control of religion (as in China today). The principle also safeguards the rights of those who are opposed to any and all notions of God or a god.

Universal Human Drive to Control Others…
The necessity for this stems from the powerful human tendency to want to impose our will on others, no matter what the content. This universal propensity springs in part from human narcissism (I/We are the best) and it exists independent of religion (e.g., Hitler’s Third Reich).

Even Better When God is on Your Side
But it does become particularly potent when the Supreme Authority is believed to be on one’s side. Our nation’s original colonies were seeded with this belief, something that came to be called Manifest Destiny.

English Puritan minister John Cotton, in blessing the Massachusetts Bay Colony launch from England in 1630, told the group that “they are God’s new chosen people. This they like to hear.…[Like] the Old Testament Jews, God has given them a new home, a promised land.” No one, including any current residents, can dispute their right: “Hear that, Indians? No weeding of the white people allowed. Unless they’re Catholic. Or one of those Satan-worshipping Virginians.”

You Must Read Sarah Vowell!
The comments quoted above are from Sarah Vowell’s most recent book, Wordy Shipmates. If you haven’t read anything by Sarah Vowell, your life is incomplete. (Okay, that’s overstating it, but she is great.)

Sarah often has a quirky take on events and these quirks inevitably provide fresh insight (read Assassination Vacation and Partly Cloudy Patriot for more good stuff). This current book provides a thoughtful, solid overview of the intense struggles within and between various colonial factions, each afflicted with greater and lesser degrees of righteousness over matters of religious beliefs and practices. The only common practice among many was theocracy.

And Then There Was Roger Williams
The exception to that, first voiced by Roger Williams, somewhat miraculously became our nation’s guiding principle. Williams, a Puritan minister in the Massachusetts Bay Colony during the 1600s, championed the idea of a complete separation between church and state, and also advocated tolerance for dissenting religious beliefs.

For this, he was voted out of the Massachusetts colony. He had other heretical ideas, including that it was wrong to have taken land from the Indians without paying for it and wrong to impose foreign religious beliefs on them.

Eventually, he became the founder of the Rhode Island Colony where, again after years of struggles, the community affirmed the principle of the separation of church and state and demonstrated remarkable openness to religious seekers of many kinds who had been expelled from other jurisdictions.

A Historyectomy For Newt, Rush & Sarah?
These facts from the early years of our nation’s relatively short history seem to have faded off the page for Gingrich, Limbaugh, Palin, and others. It appears they would have been happier in one of the early colonies where there was only one true religion (per colony, that is). But these issues were settled centuries ago by our revered forebears, Christian, humanist and otherwise.

What these Fear Inflamers want to do is to make enemies out of politicians and other leaders who do not believe like they do, portraying them as unfit to lead. The efforts by Gingrich, Limbaugh, Palin and others seem to be calculated ploys designed to stir up the fears and rages of their followers.

The obvious intent is to provoke their audience to attack opposition candidates this fall as soft on terrorism, a proven winning tactic. I call these efforts calculated because I believe most of them (with the exception of possibly Palin) have a pretty good idea of our nation’s history.

They are Making the World More Dangerous
By making these inflammatory statements, these three and others are working hard against our nation’s best interests and, indeed, are contributing to the risks we now face. Why? Because they further stoke the hatred of America in regions of the world where many already despise us.

In some of those places, we have troops on the ground and the local reaction to these sentiments has to make our soldiers’ lives more dangerous. The statements also make it much harder for Islamic moderates to prevail.

And Setting Americans Against Americans
At least as bad, these ill-intended words set Americans against Americans at a primal level, igniting our reptilian brain stem in its purist form: Are you friend or deadly enemy? Reason and understanding die quickly in that environment.

In sum, attempting to win elections using these divisive methods is dangerous and makes a mockery of our nation’s founding principles. The more of us who say this in clear, strong and reasonable ways the more likely we are to marginalize the voices of fear, hatred and unreason.


  • Community Alliance

    The Community Alliance is a monthly newspaper that has been published in Fresno, California, since 1996. The purpose of the newspaper is to help build a progressive movement for social and economic justice.

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