Of the many issues that divide people around the world, one of the most challenging is the relationship between faith and culture. In order to maintain a sense of their culture, the French have instituted laws banning people from wearing particular items of religious clothing in specific public places. Similar tensions are found in Turkey, founded as a secular Muslim country, as some Muslim women have chosen to wear the hijab (head scarf) in public. Commentators ask questions about the role religion will play in Arab countries as they continue to develop past the 2011 Arab Spring. Or the role Evangelic Christianity has in the political life of the United States.
While this topic is somewhat different from my usual weekly reflections on spirituality, I believe it’s an important one to consider because it is related to the public expression of spirituality and belief. The role of religion in a particular culture is a dimension of how people demonstrate what is most sacred to them. I would suggest that the degree to which people can respect different beliefs and spiritual paths correlates with the degree to which the basic humanity of people is respected in that country or culture. While the great religious traditions of the world disagree on many aspects of their dogma, at heart they all value the treatment of others with compassion and respect. Treating others with compassion and respect is a universal sign of spiritual maturity.
The history of the United States, particularly the role of religion in its history, is much more complex than depicted in the quick sound-bites presented by Evangelicals who claim that the early colonialists came to establish a Christian nation. But claims that the colonials were merely guided by humanistic principles are equally wrong as well.
New world colonies from which grew the United States we know today began at Jamestown, Virginia and Plymouth, Massachusetts. (While there were Russian colonies along the Pacific coast and Spanish colonies in the Southwest that have great historical significance for the United States, the foundational values that are rooted in the culture of the United States developed from the Atlantic colonies.) It’s important to note that all of the early colonists were from Christian countries. Each group came to plant a national flag and a cross. But this did not mean they were establishing a new Christian nation. Instead, their primary intent was to extend the options for trade and economic growth for their respective mother-lands.
The colony of Virginia was, by law, an Anglican colony. Massachusetts, and the other New England colonies, were Congregational by law. One could not own land, hold public office, or conduct business unless one belonged to the prescribed religion of the colony. William Penn allowed freedom of religion in his colony of Pennsylvania. The colony was then settled by a variety of Anabaptist groups like the Quakers, Amish, and Harmonists as well as members of the German Reformed church. While Catholics and Jews didn’t fare well in colonial history, one of the most discriminated groups during the colonial era was the Baptists. During the colonial period, Baptists were something of an under-ground religious group and viewed as heretics by Congregationalists and Anglicans. During the colonial era, it is estimated that over 90% of colonists were either Congregationalists or Anglicans.
The single greatest problem faced by George Washington was how to form a colonial army comprised mainly of Congregationalists and Anglicans and that also included Baptists, Catholics, and Jews. To work as a cohesive military force, Washington had to bridge the strong animosity that existed among the various Christian sects who saw each other as different religions. Washington, himself a member of an Anglican church, never took communion at Sunday services. He’s known for leaving Sunday services in the middle. But he was an active member of the Freemasons and participated fully in the rituals of Freemasonry. Working with other founding fathers, Washington attempted to inspire the colonial army with a sense of loyalty to the revolution based on respect for religious differences. To that end, he recruited clergy who became military chaplains who were committed to bridge the divide caused by religious differences.
In order to form a union among the colonies, it was clear to the founders that the union could only be obtained if the government did not establish an official religion but instead separated itself from the matters of belief and religion. It is unlikely that the United States could have been formed without the separation of church and state.
There have been times throughout the history of the United States when religious groups have attempted to exert their influence on government. However, based on my reading of history, there has not been a time when religious people have actively attempted to change the fundamental nature of the country and impose their beliefs on the entire country like today. I see no difference between the attempts of conservative Evangelicals and reactionary Catholics who are working to impose their beliefs on others in the United States from the way Orthodox Jews in Israel and Muslim extremists in Arab countries are working to change their own countries. In each case, fundamentalism distorts the heart of each religious tradition by instilling a fear of others and teaching adherents to treat those who are different with prejudice and hatred.
While Evangelical Christians have been part of the American landscape for only the last century, it is interesting to me to note that the descendents of the Christians predominant in the colonial era are not today’s Evangelicals and do not support conservative politics. The United Church of Christ, the descendents of the Congregationalists, and the Episcopal Church, the descendents of colonial Anglicans, encourage respect for diverse religious and spiritual views, support a woman’s right to full access to healthcare including contraception and abortion, support same sex marriage, support anti-bullying policies, and tirelessly work for the rights of the poor and marginalized in society. In other words, the ideals of freedom and justice for all have been incorporated into the religious life of these two Christian denominations who once benefited as government established religions during the colonial era. Perhaps it can be said that over time, the privileged status enjoyed by these two groups gave way to a mature understanding of belief and practice that’s built on compassion for others and respect for freedom. Sadly, as I look at the landscape of political activism by religious fundamentalists in the United States and other parts of the world, what I see most is a lack of compassion and actions that are disrespectful of others. Perhaps a more careful understanding of history can lead to greater tolerance among all people.
(Recommended reading: Waldman, Stephen. Founding Faith: How Our Founding Fathers Forged a Radical New Approach to Religious Liberty. Random House, c. 2009. ISBN: 978-0812974744)
© 2012, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.