What other country sets its sights so high or struggles so hard to live up to its ideals? Where is national identity based so completely on shared values that include respect for the right of anyone to be wrong?
We have abundant reason to rejoice that in this land the light of truth and reason has triumphed over the power of bigotry and superstition, and that every person may here worship God according to the dictates of his own heart," wrote an optimistic President Washington to the members of New Church in Baltimore. "In this enlightened age and in this land of equal liberty it is our boast," the great man continued, "that a man's religious tenets will not forfeit the protection of the laws, nor deprive him of the right of attaining and holding the highest that are known in the United States."
Here was the decent, extraordinary Washington at his most compelling. But was the man who had kept the country together through the Revolution and difficult years that immediately followed correct in his belief that America somehow had bridged the deep divisions that separate mankind over questions of religious faith and that elsewhere have led to so much bloodshed?
The answer is that Washington was both right and wrong. Protestant America did not take kindly to the huge influx of Catholic immigrants during the 19th century. Quakers and (later) Mormons felt the brunt of some of the most violent bigotry in US. history
And people of other faiths would find themselves outsiders, too. But the gist of what Washington wrote to the congregation in Baltimore remained true nonetheless: In America religious freedom had been achieved as in no other country in world history, but it had been won with great difficulty and it has continued to be difficult to maintain the level of civility in religious matters which the very civil father of his country foresaw as a central part of the American experiment.
"Unfortunately, our historical experience has an awful lot of antireligious bigotry in it. There is a lot of ugliness there. Whoever controlled the relevant levels of power seemed all too willing to use that power against whatever the minority faith was," says evangelical Christian and syndicated columnist Doug Bandow (see "Christianity Meets Libertarianism, and Bandow Makes It a Match" p. 20).
Bandow adds: "At the same time, religious bigotry is un-American in a larger sense in an America that values individual liberty and individual dignity. In that kind of America -- and I think individual liberty and dignity are animating values of America -- religious bigotry has no place."
Two 17th-century Americans, Thomas Hooker and Roger Williams, laid the groundwork for tolerance and religious freedom on this continent. Both were clergymen -- and both certainly were very devout Christians -- whose disagreements with the reigning Puritan orthodoxies of the Massachusetts Bay Colony led them to abandon Massachusetts for Connecticut (in Hooker's case) and Rhode Island (in Williams') and set up new colonies where they could pursue faith according to their own consciences.
Both men came to believe in the sanctity of the individual conscience at a time when European nations had been embroiled in religious wars between Catholics and Protestants for over a century and when European monarchs -- or Parliament in the case of England -- imposed state religions on their subjects and punished heresy severely, often with death. State-imposed established churches were the norm in the colonies as well.
Hooker, speaking in a famous sermon delivered on May 31, 1638, declared that "the foundation of authority is laid, first in the free consent of the people [emphasis added]." Hooker based his democratic convictions on Deuteronomy 1:13, where God ordered the Israelites to "choose some men from each tribe who have wisdom, understanding, and a good reputation, and I will appoint them as your leaders. …