Public Square

The Colonial Era & Religious Pluralism Today

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A curious feature of the earliest eras of European immigration to the Americas, and specifically to North America, has to do with religious liberty, freedoms of worship, religious exercise, and conscience.

Many of those who first came to America in the colonial era were motivated by the inhospitable situation on the continent and in England. They were looking for space to live and flourish, both in terms of literal space to work and legal space to worship. But in many ways, they were concerned not with promoting religious pluralism or toleration more broadly, but with finding a place to set up their own authentic and faithfully organized religious community. Their motto might have been “religious liberty for me, but not for thee.”

The Pilgrims, for instance, fled England and spent more than a decade in exile in the Netherlands, which provided a haven for them to worship as independent and separate churches from the Anglican establishment. But the lack of economic opportunities also compelled these Separatists to establish the Plymouth Colony in 1620. In the words of the Mayflower Compact, the enterprise was “undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country.” But having sought and found freedom from the established church in England, the Pilgrims were faced with the challenge of maintaining the coherence of their own practices and religious unity, now in the context of a new “civil Body Politick.”

Escaping Oppression

Other colonial efforts were borne out of similar practical concerns. The hazardous voyage to the New World wasn’t undertaken so much out of concerns for theoretical systems of religious freedom, but rather out of the desire to escape concrete oppression and marginalization. Soon after Separatist puritans settled at Plymouth Colony, Roman Catholics established themselves in Maryland, seeking to avoid persecution from the English ecclesiastical and civil authorities. The Quaker William Penn (1644-1718) was certainly motivated by a concern for religious liberty for people of all faiths, and under Roger Williams (c.1603-1683), Rhode Island was conceived as a refuge for Christians of all denominations as well as dissenters and other minorities, including Jews. But these were noteworthy exceptions.

Os Guinness notes that Roger Williams was particularly critical of the temptation to restrict religious liberty of others when a group had experienced such restriction themselves. As Guinness relates

Williams himself had crossed the Atlantic five times, and he repeatedly used the analogy of the ship of state to speak of civic affairs. His whole letter to the town of Providence in 1654 turned on that picture, but he used it earlier when he was incensed by the hypocrisy he saw in his fellow Puritans. Citing the strictures in Deuteronomy on those who cheat by using different weights in the marketplace, he excoriated the hypocrisy of those who spoke one way when they were “under the hatches,” but treated others differently when they were “at the helm.”

Religious Liberty After the Colonies

But just as many of the colonists were motivated to realize religious liberty for themselves and to establish institutions in accordance with their own convictions, so too were many American states places of religious establishment in the Founding era. Of the thirteen original colonies, only Rhode Island had clear disestablishment. All of the others either had an established church (often Anglican or Congregational) or other forms of public, governmental support for Christianity. The First Amendment of the US Constitution prohibited religious establishment at the federal level, but left untouched the different situations in the individual states. 

And although the 14th Amendment was later understood to apply not only to the federal government but also to the states (thereby formally undoing religious establishment at the state level), America’s founding federalism continues to allow for a diversity between states as it relates to their legal protection of free exercise. 

Religious Liberty in the States

Dr. Sarah M. Estelle, the director of Religious Liberty in the States under the Center for Religion, Culture and Democracy, recently wrote a blog for IFWE specifically about Religious Liberty in the States (RLS). This project measures 29 different items across 11 distinct safeguards and ranks all 50 states according to their level of legal protection of religious exercise. And the results of the first year’s index show that there is a great diversity in legal safeguards for religious liberty across the United States, from states including Mississippi and Illinois at the top of the rankings to California, West Virginia, and New York at the bottom.

So even though America was, in many ways, a nation founded on and formed by commitments to religious liberty, the motivation and manifestation of these freedoms varied from place to place, from colony to colony, and from state to state. And in the same way in the present US more than four centuries removed from the founding of the Plymouth Colony, the legal context for religious liberty and the free exercise of religion can vary greatly across the country.

From before its founding, the United States has thus been characterized by diverse approaches to religious liberty, by increasing pluralism of its citizenry, and by various attempts to peaceably reconcile the demands of religious obedience and the realities of religious pluralism.

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