Jews, Turks, and Infidels

Jews, Turks, and Infidels

Jews, Turks, and Infidels

Jews, Turks, and Infidels

Synopsis

Borden reveals the ways in which many mainstream Protestants worked to maintain preferential treatment for Christians in common law, state constitutions, and federal practices, even attempting through interpretation and amendment to alter the meaning of the U.S. Constitution. Even though religious freedom was guaranteed by the constitution in 1788, it took the sustained efforts of vigilant Jews during the nineteenth century to fulfill the constitution's promise of religious equality.

Originally published in 1984.

Excerpt

Religious liberty and political liberty shared the same umbilical cord of the American Revolution. One could not survive without the other, and both were nurtured on a rich prenatal diet of supporting declarations. Foreign soldiers who fought for the English monarch, for example, were promised protection "in the free exercise of their respective religions" if they would defect to the rebel side. Patrick Henry drafted that part of the Virginia Declaration of Rights in 1776 which stated that "all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion." As colonies became states, most adopted bills of rights that guaranteed freedom of religion. So did the federal government.

At the same time, many Americans defined the United States as a Christian nation. Jews, Turks, and Infidels (or any other exotic group), they believed, could worship as they pleased but had no right to participate in its government. Some of the same state constitutions that guaranteed religious liberty also contained provisions that restricted holding office to Christians or to Protestants. in several states those restrictions were defended and maintained well into the nineteenth century. the Constitution of the United States, to be sure, recognized no religious distinctions of any kind; but that applied to federal, not state, offices. Moreover, the Constitution was subject to judicial interpretation and to political amendment. Did the Constitution permit blasphemy prosecutions? Sunday laws? To what extent, if any, did common-law protections of Christianity apply under the Constitution? in short, what would America be: secular or Christian? Both messages were broadcast simultaneously. Obviously there was a gap between the rhetoric of religious liberty and the fact of religious bigotry; between the will of what some Christians claimed to be the opinion of the majority and the rights of the minority.

The expansion of religious liberty (and its political sibling) was not an inevitable result of the Revolution, or even of the Constitution, though many scholars so argue. It did not come easily, and it did not simply ripen and fall to non-Christians as a gift of the Protestant major-

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