Liberty of Conscience under attack in era of social intolerance

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By Samuel Damren

In the last term of the Supreme Court, a majority of justices laid groundwork to undermine one of the unique American contributions to the structure of modern government: the principle of separation of church and state. This commentary discusses one of the lesser-known origins of that constitutional principle.

Beginning in the 1600s, because of religious persecution many colonists left England and Europe seeking a hoped-for better life in what later became America. In telling our story of origin, and in composing today’s political and judicial narratives, the persecution part of the story is often set aside.

Church and state were not separate in the Europe and England our immigrant forbearers left to found America. The Old World was, and had long been, a cauldron of religious persecution and violence from which there was seemingly no escape.

Today, acceptance of a religious faith is accompanied by both a choice and a commitment. For example, if you choose to be a member of Religion A, you commit to the belief that its doctrine of faith is superior and correct, compared to Religion B or C or any other belief system. If it were otherwise, and you were not giving false witness to Religion A, you would convert to another religion or belief system.

But for centuries before America, in the Old World the commitment was not a matter of choice.

Instead, religious decisions were coupled with church and state, and the ruler of a particular domain determined the religion of his subjects. Conformity of belief was thus a mandate for subjects rather than a matter of individual choice.

As a result, there was only a limited range of possibilities for rulers and practitioners of different religions within a particular realm to interact with one another. The possibilities are more accurately described as a range of persecutions.

Members of Religion A, if that was the religion selected by the ruler, could provide members of other religions with a short-term opportunity to convert to “the one true faith,” then shame, persecute and subjugate members of other religions as “second-class” citizens, or attempt to convert heretics to Religion A by physical coercion and torture, and failing conversion imprison or exile them from the land, and lastly execute followers of different religions as heretics.

These persecutions were practiced in the name of religion for centuries across the Old World resulting in unrelenting torment, degradations, violence, ritual torture, banishments of whole populations, executions, and mass murder. It was little surprise that when immigration to the New World became possible for the persecuted that many fled as colonists to new shores.

Roger Williams was one of these immigrants. He was born in London in 1603, educated at Cambridge, and for a time served as secretary to attorney general and later jurist Sir Edward Coke, the famous English defender of common law limitations on Royal proclamations, acts of Parliament and ecclesiastic courts.

While regarded as a protégé of Coke, Williams nonetheless left England in 1630 to found an independent ministry in Boston. Because of differences with Boston Puritans over their continued ties to the Church of England, Williams was soon forced to move to Salem and then Plymouth. There he cultivated relations with Native Indian tribes, and based on that experience challenged the right of English colonies to take Native lands by decree, rather than purchase. 

As a result of these disputes, Williams was banished from Massachusetts. Here, the story took a unique turn from the history and experience of the past.

Williams and his young family sought refuge in New Providence. In 1643, he returned to England where through prior contacts, he secured a patent to establish Rhode Island as a separate colony in America. 

The patent, granted in 1647, created for the first time in the Western World, a separation between church and state.

This provision endeavored a novel solution to the endemic violence and wars wrought by competing religions in the Old World. The solution was simple: eliminate religion from the equation of governing so that, in the later words of the Rhode Island General Assembly, “all men may walk as conscience persuades them.”

Only in America could that proposed solution have taken root.

The seeds of individual religious “choice,” as opposed to a ruler’s imposition of mandatory religious beliefs, was inconceivable to the societal fabric of the Old World. Far too much blood had been spilled in prior religious conflicts and wars to even contemplate such a thought. For that reason, the political ground on which the seeds of individual choice might have fallen would never nourish the concept. And even if a few of those seeds did germinate, the sprouts would have been ripped from the ground by  ever-vigilant priests, ministers, and the civil and military administrators of the Old World rulers.

But in America those same seeds were to flourish. What the English once called Roger Williams’ “livelie experiment” to construct a moral society based on individual choice not religious mandate ultimately became a reality in the American Constitution.

“Choice” is what the separation of church and state gave to the citizens, not subjects, of America.

Today, that Liberty of Conscience is under attack. The forces of religious conformity that once tormented the Old World have risen to prominence in many parts of America. As they were in the past, those forces persecute freedom of “choice,” people who are “different” from “us” and “beliefs” that are contrary to “ours.”

Anti-abortion legislation, anti-immigrant and racist movements, and legislative prohibitions on teaching certain beliefs in our schools now pockmark the American landscape.