“Persecution is not an original feature in any religion; but it is always the strongly marked feature of all religions established by law.” – Thomas Paine, Rights of Man (1791)
Christians are no more persecuted in America than strictly observant Shia Muslims loyal to “the system” are in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Christians here who complain that they are being persecuted are like the slave owners, and wannabe slave-owners, in the antebellum Old South who constantly complained that their rights were being violated by those who wanted to abolish slavery, or their Jim Crow successors who complained in the mid-20th century that their rights were being violated because they couldn’t discriminate against African-Americans.
The Treaty of Tripoli
Much has been made by both sides of Article 11 in the 1797 Treaty of Tripoli between the new United States of America and the Bey of Tripolitania (essentially Libya) that, “The government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion.” The treaty was negotiated by Consul-General John Barlow with full authority from President Washington, a fact with which then Vice President and later President Adams was completely aware and in full agreement.
It is irrelevant to the mind of Congress and of the President at the time of its passage that this treaty was later superceded by another and that the English translation of the Arabic original may not have been the best. The word-for-word accuracy of Consul-General John Barlow’s English translation of the Arabic original he himself had written does not matter. Whether the Article 11 of his translation exists in that Arabic original is immaterial. The one thing which does count is that Consul-General Barlow’s translation was the one presented to the Senate, read aloud in chambers to the entire body, approved unanimously, signed into law by Pres. John Adams, and published in every major newspaper in the country to little but yawns in response.
Christian Dominionists and other theocrats doth protest too much. On the other hand, the opposing position, that the treaty and its Article 11 establish under the law that America was not founded as a “Christian Nation” is equally flawed. And also unnecessary, since history already does that better than any single piece of legislation could do.
Religion in the English Colonies
The colonization of North America by the kingdom of England rested in the hands of two stock corporations, Plymouth Company (later succeeded by Massachusetts Bay Company) for the northern territories and London Company for the southern territories, both owned by the greater Virginia Company. Yes, investors bought shares with money which the companies used as capital for the colonization ventures, and for one reason and one only: to make a profit. Had not the stock companies’ capital existed and had they not expected to make more money than they had invested, none of the colonies would have been established.
America may have been colonized by both pulpit and profit, but the latter weighed much more in importance.
True, the colony at New Plymouth counted among its founders English Separatists (Calvinists who wanted to separate completely from the Church of England), but the entrepreneurs and soldiers who were mainline Anglicans that came with them, “The Strangers” as they were called by the Separatists, made a 60% majority. That majority was recruited and paid by the Merchant Adventurers of London.
The earlier colony at Jamestown had a religious component too, but it was mainline Church of England and its entrepreneur element was overwhelmingly dominant.
The later colony at Massachusetts Bay established a government which restricted its electorate, and most of its profits, to the Puritan sect of the Church of England. Puritans were Calvinists much like their Separatist cousins but considered themselves Anglicans whose duty it was to purify their church and force everyone else to worship their way. But even there, and in its spin-offs, the profit motive trumped the desires of the pulpit.
Celebrations, even the observances of, Christmas and Easter were forbidden by law with harsh penalties attached in the colonies of New England, by the way. The Puritans, both here and on the other side of the Great Pond, launched the original “war on Christmas”.
Besides the 19 unfortunate persons hanged, the one tortured to death because he wouldn’t make a plea, and the 50 who were thrown in prison under such harsh conditions that 5 died during the Salem witch hysteria, Massachusetts Bay Colony also persecuted Christians of other faiths, hanging 4 Quakers and imprisoning countless others.
In Puritan New England, there was no singing of anything but hymns unaccompanied by instruments, no dancing whatsoever, no toys for children and especially not dolls, no education but religious education, nothing but work and church and more work. They did, however, drink beer and later rum in moderation, carrying over from Europe where no one in their right mind drank water (nearly all sources were polluted). The overwhelming majority of weddings occurred because of pregnancy, but kissing one’s spouse after six months at sea in public could land a man in the stocks for three hours.
In 1775, all the southern colonies of the kingdom of Great Britain (Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland) had the Church of England as their established church, while in New England were nearly all Congregational (as the Puritans had become), the one exception there being Rhode Island. The Church of England was also established in New York, but the colony there also had a long-established tradition of tolerance for differing, including non-Christian, creeds. Pennsylvania and Delaware had no established church; the former never had and the second had none after becoming part of Pennsylvania (it was first New Sweden, and later part of New Netherlands beforehand).
However, the basis upon which English (later British) colonies were founded and governed, including what status religion had within them, has no bearing whatsoever on the foundation of the United States of America as a separate free and independent nation. As a matter of fact, only 7% of Americans had any church affiliation by the end of the Revolution, largely due to a lack of religious interest, particularly in orthodox denominations. Many of the “sinners-in-the-hands-of-an-angry-God” Calvinists in the New England states had become Unitarians, Universalists, Transcendentalists, and Spiritualists, for example.
Not one of the first six U.S. Presidents was an orthodox Christian. George Washington was a practicing Episcopalian but his personal were Deist and Freethinking and fit in with what is called the Broad Church that had existed in the Church of England (and the rest of the Anglican Communion) since the 17th century. John Adams was a Unitarian who started as an orthodox Congregationalist. Thomas Jefferson grew up Church of England and was technically an Episcopalian, but his own ideas were Deist and Unitarian. James Madison and James Monroe were both Deists who attended the Episcopal Church. John Quincy Adams was, like his father, a Unitarian. Andrew Jackson didn’t join a church (Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.) until after leaving office.
A New Order for the Ages
What is relevant in that regard is the collection of documents upon which that Nation was founded: the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the U.S. Constitution, and the U.S. Bill of Rights. In not one of those documents is Christianity, or any other religion, mentioned or alluded to. The sole one of those four in which “God” is mentioned (Declaration of Independence) specifies “Nature’s God”, the Enlightenment concept of God held by deists and other freethinkers rather than by that of any denomination of the religion of Christianity or of any other religion.
In establishing a “New Order for the Ages” (Novus Ordo Seclorum; one of the three mottos on the Great Seal adopted in 1782), the Founding Fathers rejected the hereditary monarchy and both its Lords Spiritual (religious prelates) and Lords Temporal (hereditary nobility). If they saw themselves as a light shining on a hill, it was as the light of reason in a New Rome.
Indeed, when seeking a location for a national capital, they seized upon the community of Rome, Virginia, with seven hills and a river named Tiber. The Mall between the Capitol and the White House was consciously built in imitation of the Roman Forum. In the Capitol itself, an eternal flame burned in the basement could be viewed through a large circular hole with a rail in the ground floor until the mid-19th century. The first Congress convened on 25 December 1789, Christmas Day. Mail ran seven days a week, including Sundays.
The earliest document, the Declaration of Independence of 1776, contains, as stated before, a reference to “Nature’s God”, which is specifically a freethinking deistic concept of God. There is also a mention of “trusting in Divine Providence”, another deist concept. But it does need to be highlighted that the Declaration of Independence is not law.
The Articles of Confederation of 1781, which preceded the Constitution, contained nothing about religion at all, being too short.
It was, however, the Congress of the Confederation which in 1782 adopted the Great Seal of the United States which remains today. On its obverse (front) side is a bald eagle with an olive branch in its right claw and arrows in its left, with a banner in its beak which reads “E pluribus unum”, or “From many one”. That was the design and motto proposed. The originally proposed design for the reverse, the Eye of Providence over a thirteen-level pyramid, was also retained but its mottoes were changed. “Deo favente” (God favors) became “Annuit coeptis” (He approves) and “Perennis” (Everlasting) was discarded in favor of “Novus ordo seclorum” (New order for the ages). Less religious theism in favor of more Enlightenment.
Despite what Christian Dominionists and other theocrats who advocate that America abandon its founding principles in order to erect a so-called “Christian Nation” mirroring the Islamic Republic of Iran in all but name on the ashes of the Constitution claim, nothing in the original Constitution of the United States of America of 1789 mentions religion, except to forbid religious tests for office or public trust. Those who claim that Article 1 sets a provision for chaplains in one or both houses of Congress have either not read the document or are outright lying. While some might call the latter a “pious fraud”, it is nevertheless bearing a false witness and therefore not simply lacking in piety but an affront to it.
The Bill of Rights of 1791, in its Article 1 (aka First Amendment or Article 8 of the Constitution), guarantees freedom of religion and forbids the establishment of religion. Neither of those are provisions which would be welcome to the government of the current Islamic Republic of Iran, though I know that many of its citizens, especially the sincerely religious, devoutly wish to be governed under those standards.
Of course, the Bill of Rights only applies to the government of the United States of America, but the 14th Amendment to the Constitution (aka Article 22) of 1868 guaranteed the rights of citizens of the United States to every citizen of each of its constituent states and territories. However, Thomas Jefferson oft-debated letter indicates the founders probably intended those rights to extend to citizens of states as well as of the nation.
Wall of Separation
The phrase “wall of separation between church and state” as it is used in current American legislation and jurisprudence comes directly from the 1802 letter of then President Thomas Jefferson to the head of the Danbury Baptist Association in Virginia. Unlike many of their modern incarnations, late 18th and early 19th century Baptists were absolutists on church-state separation. The Danbury group’s fears were that Virginia was about to declare the Protestant Episcopal Church (successor to the Church of England) its established church.
To them, Jefferson replied, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”
Jefferson borrowed the phrase from America’s first Baptist, Roger Williams, founder of Providence Plantation, the first colony in Rhode Island. Williams, himself a victim of religious persecution under the Puritan regime in Massachusetts Bay, stated in a 1644 book that there needed to be a “…wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the world.” In Williams’ colony, not only was tolerance for all religions law, but slavery and other obnoxious practices then current were abolished.
Regardless of where the phrase “separation of church and state” came from, however, that is the law under American jurisprudence, which follows its predecessor English common law. In the 1947 case of Everson v. Board of Education, Justice Hugo Black writing the majority opinion for the Supreme Court included the following: “The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach.”
I’m going to list these quotes without comment.
“Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God the things that are God’s.”
“No one can serve two masters, for either they will love one and hate the other, or they will hold to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”
“My kingdom is not of this world.”
“The kingdom of God is inside each of you.”
“When you pray, go into your room, close your door, and pray to your Father in secret.”
Would the man who said these things be in favor of idols to the so-called “Ten Commandments” being placed in courthouses and government squares? Would the man who said these things want prayer in his name before government meetings or public school sporting events? Would the man who said these things wish for prayers and/or Bible readings over public school intercoms? Would the man who said these things like to see the name of his father taken in vain with “In God we trust” emblazoned all over our currency? Perhaps he would reply that it is emblazoned on the only God that America really trusts.