Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

'Land of the Free' Has a Long History of Religious Persecution

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

'Land of the Free' Has a Long History of Religious Persecution

Article excerpt


This nation long has had an ambiguous relationship with its religious heritage. Many of those who settled here in the early days of the colony were fleeing religious persecution in their homeland, and many who followed came for a similar reason. But once here, it was not uncommon to ostracize those who were different.

A 2010 article in The Smithsonian Magazine cites the banishment of Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the mid-17th century because of disagreements over theology, and in Boston's early days Catholics who were widely referred to as "papists" were banned as were other non-Puritans.

Even after the fledgling nation had won its independence, discriminatory practices were common in the new states. New York's constitution banned Roman Catholics from holding office, a provision that stayed in place until 1806, and several states, including Massachusetts and South Carolina, had state-supported churches.

But thanks largely to James Madison, known as the "Father of the Constitution," this nation -- at least officially -- sought to draw a clear line between church and state and form a secular government free of religious affiliation.

In making his case, Madison wrote, "The religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an inalienable right."

Likewise, the First Amendment to the Constitution enshrines freedom of religion by saying, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Still, the practice of religious persecution did not automatically vanish in this nation with the passage of the Constitution, nor as the dominance of Protestants began to diminish with the influx of immigrants. In the mid-19th century, the Irish potato famine brought some 2 million immigrants, nearly all practicing Catholics, to the American Northeast. The Pluralism Project of Harvard University published a report describing a familiar feeling at the time, "To be Protestant, for some, meant to define oneself over and against Catholicism, and to resist the presence of Catholics in schools, neighborhoods, and the nation."

In was a similar scenario when Jews, first from Germany and later from eastern Europe, began to populate American cities. Unlike Catholics, who chose to form their own school system, Jews opted for the public schools as a way to assimilate but found them to be heavily Christian in focus. …

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