Monday, June 30, 2014

America and Religious Freedom

In honor of American Independence, here is an explanation why this country, apart from every other nation, initiated religious freedom and enshrined that ideal in its Constitution.

During the American Civil War, from 1861-1865, devout Christians regularly contacted the Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase about a serious concern that overshadowed the bloody struggle raging in the eastern half of the embattled country. 

For example, in 1861, Rev. M. R. Watkinson, a minister from Ridleyville, Pennsylvania, wrote Chase: “One fact touching our currency has hitherto been seriously overlooked. I mean the recognition of the Almighty God in some form on our coins.”  To Rev. Watkinson and many other pious Americans, the lack of divine mention helped explain why the South tried to separate from the northern states, not the economic and social disagreements that everyone else cited.

Dominated by Christians, Congress naturally agreed with the earnest correspondents and passed laws in 1865, the year the conflict ended, and again in 1873 to allow the U.S. Mint to add the phrase “In God We Trust” to various coins. Some coins received the new imprint; others did not.  Still, by 1938, all U.S. coins carried that motto, according to the U.S. Department of Treasury website.

That hardly appeased Rev. Watkinson’s religious descendants who have continually pushed to inject a heavy dose of their religious beliefs into society.  That conflict dates back close to 500 years.

Martin Luther, a dissident Roman Catholic monk, lit the spark in 1517 by posting a famed thesis listing 95 complaints against Roman Catholic policy.  Within a decade, he headed a burgeoning Christian sect developed in protest to the dominant Roman Catholic religion and bearing his name.

Other Protestant sects followed, setting off a series of crippling and inhuman wars between the two Christian divisions. Political alliances and disputes, ranging from the Spanish Armada’s attempt to conquer England, to the Inquisition, were all built around state efforts to control religious beliefs. In England, Catholic and Protestant rulers took turns harassing and burning religious opponents.

The devastation and resulting persecutions led many people to flee, seeking refuge beyond the reach of government. 

The French Huguenots, Protestants regularly harassed and finally massacred in Catholic France, braved the Atlantic Ocean to transplant the bitter fight in the New World by settling in Catholic Brazil in 1555.  Seven years later, a small group of them headed north to Florida under Jean Ribault.  They built a settlement near what is now St. Augustine.  It failed, and survivors sailed back to England.  In 1564, a new batch of Huguenots moved in and built Ft. Caroline, named for the French king Charles IX.  Soon after, Ribault showed up with a fleet and hundreds of soldiers.

The Spanish countered by building St. Augustine to the north, cementing their hold on land originally explored and claimed by Spaniard Ponce de Leon.  Ribault tried to destroy St. Augustine, but an ill-timed hurricane scattered his small navy.  The Spanish under Pedro Menéndez then reciprocated and captured Fort Caroline in 1565.  They promptly massacred 245 captured French soldiers on the beach.

Many were hung from nearby trees.  An inscription left behind testified to the religious nature of the massacre: "We do this not to Frenchmen, but to heretics."

Even the few who escaped were later butchered when, famished, they sought refuge with the Spanish. Ribault was flayed and his skin sent to Europe to illustrate the fate of nonbelievers.

Today, the area is still called Matanzas, meaning “place of killing.”

Menéndez wrote the Spanish king in his report:  "I had their hands tied behind their backs and themselves put to the sword. It appeared to me that by thus chastising them, God our Lord and your Majesty were served. Whereby this evil sect will in future leave us freer to plant the Gospel in these parts."

Spanish brutality, however, did not deter members of other faiths seeking refuge on American soil.

In 1620, a group of Protestants discouraged by their failed effort to “purify” the Church of England made landfall in what is now Massachusetts.  They had planned to disembark at the existing colony in Jamestown, Virginia, founded in 1607, but ended up further north.

Known as Puritans, they quickly established themselves in an area where the natives had been depleted by disease.  Now completely in control, the Puritans insisted on an autocratic theocracy, harassing ministers who failed to kowtow to the dominant faith, even arresting and hanging members of other Christian sects who mistakenly tried to live there.

One of the Puritan ministers, Roger Williams, soon began to disagree with efforts to impose the Puritan religion on all settlers.  Williams had been influenced by his earlier work with Sir Edward Coke, considered one of English’s greatest jurist.  Coke was jailed for his opposition to royal power, but wrote the laws that eventually led to the uprising against and beheading of King Charles 1.

Williams so outraged Massachusetts religious authorities that he was exiled in the winter without resources and survived only through the help of Native Americans. Encouraged, he established the city of Providence as a refuge for others like him. As one of the basic tenets of the new colony, which eventually became the state of Rhode Island, Williams insisted on freedom of religious belief and openly welcomed anyone regardless of faith.  As a result, starting with laws passed in 1636, Rhode Island became the first government anywhere to separate church and state.

The state constitution said:  "A person within the said colony, at any time hereafter, shall be anywise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question for any differences in opinion in matters of religion ... but that all persons may ... enjoy their own judgments and consciences in matters of religious concernments."

The issue was not settled, of course, since Massachusetts still loomed to the north of Rhode Island.  Williams not only had to wangle a charter after his colony was created, but continually feared an invasion by enraged separatists. 

While fending off political forays in England and occasional claims of Rhode Island territory by residents of Massachusetts, Williams remained firm to his convictions and produced a 400-page treatise, The Bloudy Tenent, of Persecution, for cause of Conscience, Discussed, in A Conference betweene Truth and Peace. In the text, which was loathed and then burned by furious religions leaders, Williams wrote:  

"It is the will and command of God that, since the coming of his Sonne the Lord Jesus, a permission of the most Paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or Antichristian consciences and worships, bee granted to all men in all Nations and Countries."

Williams cited 12 reasons for his reasoning, including these:

"Fifthly, all civil states with their officers of justice in their respective constitutions and administrations are proved essentially civil, and therefore not judges, governors, or defenders of the spiritual or Christian state and worship.

"Eighthly, God requireth not a uniformity of religion to be enacted and enforced in any civil state; which enforced uniformity (sooner or later) is the greatest occasion of civil war, ravishing of conscience, persecution of Christ Jesus in his servants, and of the hypocrisy and destruction of millions of souls.

"Tenthly, an enforced uniformity of religion throughout a nation or civil state, confounds the civil and religious, denies the principles of Christianity and civility …"
Charles II

His arguments were accepted by English King Charles II who was restored to his throne in 1660 after the Protestant Protector Oliver Cromwell died.  Charles confirmed Rhode Island’s charter and insisted that no one was to be “molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinion, in matters of religion.”

Williams is also credited with inspiring
John Locke, an English philosopher born one year before Rhode Island was established.  In his Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke explained why government and state should be separated.

"I esteem that toleration to be the chief characteristic mark of the true Church… That any man should think fit to cause another man — whose salvation he heartily desires — to expire in torments, and that even in an unconverted state, would, I confess, seem very strange to me … I esteem it above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other. If this be not done, there can be no end put to the controversies that will be always arising between those that have, or at least pretend to have, on the one side, a concernment for the interest of men's souls, and, on the other side, a care of the commonwealth."

Locke, in turn, provided the philosophical base supporting the eventual construction of an idealized wall between church and state.  

While the concept fermented, religious groups continued to spread their influence throughout the New World.  The first universities in the country, including Harvard and Yale, were established to train Christian clergy. Churches set up hospitals, welfare organizations and the like.  Political leaders were expected to attend church and faced withering criticism if they failed to do so.

Despite the Rhode Island model, other colonies did not hesitate to promote religion.  In Massachusetts, non-Christians were prevented from holding office.  That was a carryover from England where Jews were banned from public office.  That wouldn’t change there until 1858 when the first Jewish member of Parliament, Lionel de Rothschild, finally took his seat.   

The New York constitution banned Catholics from holding public office.  While Catholics had free rein in Maryland, a colony created by and for Catholics, Jews did not.  In 1649, Maryland did approve the Maryland Toleration Act, also known as the Act Concerning Religion, which opened the door to Christian residents who did not accept the trinity as described in the Catholic faith.  Jews, however, were excluded.   The new law did set up the first legal limitations on hate speech.

The Act was actually forced on Maryland since the founding Catholics were soon outnumbered by newly arrived Protestants.  At the same time, it recognized that Protestants now controlled the English government.

Nevertheless, other states financially supported churches and restricted other religions.  Even today, several states, like Arkansas and North Carolina, legally prohibit atheists from holding office.

Overall, though, the issue of religious freedom lay dormant through the War for Independence from 1776 to 1781 and the new country’s later conversion from a confederation to a republic.

 In one glittering exception, in 1779, Thomas Jefferson, the governor of Virginia, tried to slip a law through the state legislature that would guarantee legal equality for Virginia citizens of any or no   
religious beliefs.

He noted, “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.”  

His logic didn’t sway enough legislators, and the bill failed.

Instead, in 1784, famed orator and Virginia legislator Patrick Henry called for state support for “teachers of the Christian religion.”  His proposal aroused James Madison, another prominent  Virginia politician who had watched members of the Baptist clergy harassed in his home state, which was dominated by the Anglican Church.

A small man, weighing about 100 pounds and barely more than 5 feet tall, Madison wielded tremendous power through his pen.  He produced an essay titled Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, in which he argued against laws supporting any religion.

"…The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable, because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow the dictates of other men: It is unalienable also, because what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator…"

Madison also pointed out something that defenders of Christianity ignored: “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?”

The aroused legislators then voted down Henry’s proposed law and revived Jefferson’s proposal from a few years earlier.  In 1786, they passed the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom containing the following clause:

"Be it therefore enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities."

Madison then took the concept with him to the 1987 Constitution Convention in Philadelphia.  He didn’t get it adopted, but an aspect of the idea was included in Article VI:  

"…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

No mention of a deity appears in the document, a reality that galled pious Americans, the predecessors to Rev. Watkinson who was preaching some 80 years later.

The forefathers who created the United States were motivated by more than Locke’s philosophy or William’s model.  They were impelled by their own beliefs.  All were Christian; most were pious.  Among the 55 delegates, 49 were Protestants and included Anglicans, Dutch Reformed, Methodists and Presbyterians.  Two were Catholic.  They recognized the conflicts that would follow if any one religion were endorsed.

Moreover, the most prominent members were not devout Christians.

For example, George Washington, the successful general and first president, was a deist.  Nominally an Episcopalian, he also maintained a pew in a Congregationalist Church, but members admitted he rarely attended.

As president in 1790, Washington wrote: “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 not unaware of the Bible, citing a famous phrase from the book of Isaiah in a letter to the oldest American Jewish synagogue, in Newport, Rhode Island: “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 everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

Jefferson, who went on to be secretary of state and the third president, was adamantly opposed to religious control.  He produced a Bible that eliminated all elements he felt were mythological, much to the consternation of the faithful. 

In an 1814 letter, Jefferson noted, "In every country and every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own. It is easier to acquire wealth and power by this combination than by deserving them, and to effect this, they have perverted the purest religion ever preached to man into mystery and jargon, unintelligible to all mankind, and therefore the safer for their purposes."

Elder statesman Ben Franklin was also a deist who openly doubted Jesus’ divinity.  John Adams, later the second president, had left his church long before seeking higher office.  In a treaty signed while in office, Adams assured an Arab government that "As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion... it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of ... any Mehomitan nation."
The end result was that the Constitution did not mention the name of God in any manner.  Soon after, passage of the Bill of Rights augmented that view by insisting in its First Amendment that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Such language guaranteed that religious figures would condemn the document.  The Rev. John M. Mason, an Associated Reformed pastor in New York City and famed for his oratory, claimed the failure to mention God and support Christianity was “an omission which no pretext whatever can palliate.” He was sure God would “overturn from its foundations the fabric we have been rearing and crush us to atoms in the wreck.” 

The Rev. Samuel Austin in 1811 echoed that prediction by saying Constitution “is entirely disconnected from Christianity,” a failure that will “inevitably lead to its destruction.”

In an effort to impose Christianity on a reluctant population, a newly created National Reform Association in 1863 proposed a new Constitutional amendment that "humbly acknowledging Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government, the Lord Jesus Christ as the Ruler among the nations, [and] His revealed will as the supreme law of the land, in order to constitute a Christian government."

Congress rejected the suggestion, although James Pollack, a member of the NRA, helped get “In God We Trust” added to the coins.

The effort has not stopped.  In 1954, Senator Ralph Flanders (R-VT), a mechanical engineer best known for introducing the resolution to censor fellow Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI), proposed a new amendment to the Constitution:

Section 1: This nation devoutly recognizes the authority and law of Jesus Christ, Savior and Ruler of nations, through whom are bestowed the blessings of Almighty God.

It didn’t get out of committee.

In 1962, when the Supreme Court outlawed government-written school prayers, another flurry of religion-saturated amendments showed up in the hopper, but none were approved. The effort was resurrected a year later when the Court banned public reading of the Bible and required recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in public schools.

Still, those pushing to make Christianity the legally recognized religion of the U.S. have made progress. In a 2013 poll, 51 percent of Americans said they believe the U.S. Constitution established a Christian nation.  In fact, the opposite is true.

Nevertheless, “In God We Trust” remains on the currency.  People still pledge allegiance to the United States with the words, “one nation, under God,” which were added in the 1950s.  The President of the United States still takes the oath of office with the final coda, “so help me God,” words supposedly added by Washington at the first inauguration. (There's some debate whether he did or not, since the first reference doesn't occur until almost 40 years later.)

Nor does it appear that the debate will ever cease, not as long as devout believers continue to stand face to face with adamant supporters of religious freedom.  Neither side has blinked in hundreds of years or is likely to back off anytime soon.

William P. Lazarus is a recognized religious historian who has written 14 books on the topic, including Comparative Religion for Dummies.  He also did his doctoral work in American Studies at Case Western Reserve (OH) University and holds an M.A. in English from Kent State (OH) University.  After a career as a newspaper reporter and magazine editor, he now teaches communication classes at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical (FL) University and writes a popular internet blog.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

What in God's Name

What’s God’s name?  If you’re Muslim, it’s Allah, a name that means “God” and has been used for thousands of years before the Prophet Muhammad lived.  At one time, Allah was one of 365 gods honored at the Kaaba shrine in Mecca long before Muhammad identified Him as the sole God.
Malaysian Supreme Court

This question arose because of a court case in Malaysia that ended this week.  There, the High Court refused to allow a Christian newspaper to use the name Allah to identify God.  That left the publication with "only" a few options.

The editors could call Him “Yahweh.”  That’s the name from the Bible.  Moses asked God for His name while conversing at the burning bush and was told “I am that I am.”  Actually, in Hebrew, that could also translate as “I will be what I will be” and a variety of other related options.

The name was so sacred that only the Jewish high priest could say it, and then only on the sacred holiday of Yom Kippur, in a back room of the Temple where no one else could hear.  Anyone else using it could be charged with blasphemy.  That prohibition disappeared with the end of the high priest position and the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.
Statue of the dying Adonis

There are other possibilities, too, such as Adonai, which is the Hebrew version of the Greek god Adonis; Elohim, which is Hebrew for “gods;” Ha-shem, which is Hebrew for “The name;” and many more.  The Bible contains a laundry list.

Editors could say Jehovah, but that’s an invented name stemming from translating confusion.  Jewish scribes didn’t copy YHWH in the sacred books, but used a couple of letters to indicate the holy name.  Later translator couldn’t fathom what the letters met and came up with what they thought was the proper translation.

The newspaper can’t use the name Jesus.  Muslims would be offended if God was given a clearly Christian identity in a country that’s predominately Islam.

Fr. Andrew
"We are in limbo," said Father Lawrence Andrew, editor of the newspaper.  Ironically, he was using a specifically Christian term, a reference of the place where dead souls wait for their entry into heaven in unofficial Catholic beliefs.

Nevertheless, it’s an apt description.  The case started in 2007.  Fr. Andrew had to wait seven years for a verdict.

Malaysian authorities who threatened to revoke the newspaper’s license said they were concerned that if non-Muslim literature used the name Allah, Muslims could become confused and convert away from Islam, which is a crime in many parts of the country.

That’s a very odd claim.  After all, the Prophet Muhammad heard Jewish and Christian visitors to his hometown of Mecca use the word “Allah” as a generic term for God and apparently thought the visitors were referring to the god whose image was in the Kaaba.  He felt inspired then to combine the monotheistic religions in a single faith he called Islam, which centered on the one God already worshiped by Christians and Jews.

In essence, he was doing the opposite of what the Malaysian justices decided in what was widely considered a politically expedient decision.

Despite the ruling, the issue is not settled anyway.  "We need to fight this case to end, because we have to fight for justice when justice is derided or denied," Fr. Andrew told CNN.  "We have a moral obligation to champion the cause of minorities. We have a responsibility to uphold religious freedom."

Actually, the ban only affects the newspaper.  Malaysian Christians can legally say “Allah” in church, a government statement announced.   "Malaysia is a multi-faith country, and it is important that we manage our differences peacefully, in accordance with the rule of law and through dialogue, mutual respect and compromise," the statement said.

Sounds like semantics.

What else? The whole debate about God’s name is just that: a lot of hot air that, in Shakespeare’s words, is “signifying nothing.”  After all, it’s likely any god would know his//her own name regardless of what any human said or wrote.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history.  He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at  He is the author of the famed Unauthorized Biography of Nostradamus; The Last Testament of Simon Peter; The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.

You can enroll in his on-line class, Comparative Religion for Dummies, at