Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Birth of Religious Freedom in America

  There are, in my estimation, some freedoms that, unless you have them,  make other freedoms   rather meaningless, but if you  do have them, other freedoms are not only possible, but amplified in their effectiveness.  A quick example is the right to  property. If you don't have this right, then the fact that you are 'free' to barbeque on weekends is really rather meaningless , since you exercise that 'freedom' at the good pleasure of whoever the overlord of the moment happens to be.
  One of the others is religious freedom. If anyone can compel you to believe something, or compel you through whatever means to confess to things you do not  really hold to be true, then you have lost the battle for your own conscience, and whatever other 'liberties' you might enjoy   pale rather  quickly by comparison.  For a man to hold power over another man's conscience through state power or ecclesaistical power ( which often masquerades one as the other), it is  the worst sort of tyranny, for it claims jurisdiction over the  innermost parts of  a man and seeks to reign over his soul.
   It is a great irony in American history that the Puritans who had fled to the New World for the chance to exercise their own conscience in matters of worship eventually became the very thing they fled.  Colonial America wasn’t an idyllic utopia of liberty, but rather a patchwork quilt of different understandings and tolerances of what freedom was all about. In many places, especially in Church of England dominated-areas, the line between church and state was so blurry as to be almost non-existent.    Church officials held  political offices and  church  officials exercised police powers, with a careful eye towards maintaining the status quo of doctrinal purity. This mindset revealed itself in activities like the witch trials in Salem or the ordinance passed in Massachusetts in 1644 that specifically referred to Anabaptists as “the troublers of churches in all places where they have been”. In 1656 when the first Quakers began to arrive on the shores of Massachusetts, the Quakers in question were imprisoned by their Puritan brothers, the women strip-searched under pretense of looking for witches,  and their religious literature burned as heresy.

  Existing side by side with these large religious behemoths were small pockets of men and women who followed their conscience regardless of what the ruling powers thought.   They worshipped both in secret, and in open, and preached outside of the established church buildings, taking the gospel out in public as the Bible commands.  For this they were fined, banished, beaten, arrested, and imprisoned. Their ears were, in some cases, cut off, and hot irons  driven through their ‘blasphemous tongues’. Their church buildings were burned, their properties seized.  They were Quakers, and Baptists, and Anabaptists, and a variety of other groups who simply sought to live and worship according to the dictates of their own conscience. They sought to practice what would later be called ‘soul liberty’.
  Because those abuses were so blatant, it drew the attention, and earned the condemnation of some of the most prominent thinkers in the colonies. As  we are seeing again today, the  state  overreacted, overstepped its bounds, and  men of courage called them on it. In June of 1768, four Baptist preachers were imprisoned in Spotsylvania County, Virginia for  preaching without  a state-issued license.  Patrick Henry  became involved in the case, and they were released. That incident, and incidents like it, caused great discussion among the  founding generation as the colonies moved closer and closer to independence. Local statues were  enacted and drafted by what would become some of the most famous men in history. These statues were put in place to protect the  consciences of free men from coercion by the state.  They presented, in writing, a philosophical thread that grew and grew until it became the 1st amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
  One of the most prominent was one drafted by Thomas Jefferson in 1777 and adopted in 1786  entitled "An Act for establishing Religious Freedom". In  three simple paragraphs, Thomas Jefferson laid out  not only  what  powers the state did not have, but why.  It's worth reading in its entirety, but I am going to cite a couple of prominent lines and then opine (probably in a separate post) on where I hope things are going in America today.  It is an axiom in my mind that all natural rights are interconnected, and the principles behind one can be applied to the others, as you will see.
Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness....
  This includes the Infernal Revenue Service  dangling threats of revocation of tax exempt status over the head of ecclesiastical bodies and using that as a lever to  force entry into their  internal affairs.  If there ever was an organization committed to 'hypocrisy and  meanness', it is these  modern day publicans who are after all a political organ as they have so recently demonstrated.

...that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical;
  An everday occurrence in America. I  believe it is  wrong to  steal, so I am stolen from. I believe it's wrong to mooch, so my stolen money is used to support the moochers.  Abortions are funded out of my own pocket after its been pilfered. In a thousand ways I am made by compulsion to support things I  hold to be wrong.

Truth is great, and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons free argument and debate,..
  As a minister of the gospel I  hold that  a society in which  there is no  state religion  offers me the greatest opportunity to persuade men from the Scriptures by earnest and heartfelt discussion and it offers me the greatest opportunity to hear their rebuttals. In fact, on a personal note,to do so is one of the great joys of my life.

Be it enacted by General Assembly that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever,
   In a perfect world this would include the  peculiar  doctrines taught by the compulsory government schools.  Compulsory  government education has been one  of the greatest and most successful tools in  robbing people not only of truth, but of the ability to recognize the truth when it is presented to them.
  Jefferson proved himself by this resolution to be not only overtly brilliant, but a man who understood the issue and was able to get to the heart of it.  His arguments, his logic, his  very words, later became the heart of  the 1st Amendment, an amendment that  was an absolute condition for  Virginia's  ratification of the Constitution.
  Would to God we had a few more Jeffersons!
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