5 Great Moments in History That Could Teach Christian Zealots Important Lessons
Photo Credit: C-SPAN
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Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum says John F. Kennedy’s strong defense of church-state separation makes him want to “throw up.” His rival on the campaign trail, Newt Gingrich, frequently knocks “secular elites” who supposedly yearn to tear down America’s great Christian heritage. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney, a Mormon whose faith is not well understood by many Americans, would seem likely to benefit from an embrace of church-state separation, but fear of angering Religious Right voters keeps him from doing it.
It seems these days that a lot of public figures are wary of endorsing the separation of church and state. They shouldn’t be: The principle is as American as apple pie and has long roots in our nation.
Of course, church-state separation and the religious and philosophical freedom it gives us didn’t just happen in America. It was all part of a long process, an evolution of attitudes over many years. There were plenty of bumps along the way, and lots of people weren’t convinced that dividing religion and government was the way to go – and some still aren’t today.
There have been many crucial moments in America’s church-state history, some of which took place before we were officially a nation. Here are five of the most significant.
1. The Flushing Remonstrance (1657): Back in the day when New York was New Amsterdam, it was a good idea to belong to the state-established Dutch Reformed Church. In fact, other religions were banned in the colony, and failing to show the proper degree of government-approved piety could land you behind bars. Everyone had to pay church taxes, and the law mandated that all children be baptized in the Reformed Church.
New Amsterdam’s leaders had a special antipathy toward Quakers. Members of that faith were barred from even entering the colony, and anyone who came across a Quaker was expected to turn him over to the authorities. Steep fines were levied on those who harbored Quakers.
In light of these strict laws, what happened in 1657 is nothing short of remarkable. Thirty residents of the village of Flushing (now part of Queens) sent a letter to Peter Stuyvesant, director of the colony, telling him to let up on the Quakers.
The signers argued that religious persecution wasn’t in keeping with Christian theology, and they boldly closed their letter by vowing to protect Quakers. Wrote the signers, “Therefore if any of these said persons come in love unto us, we cannot in conscience lay violent hands upon them, but give them free egresse and regresse unto our Town, and houses, as God shall persuade our consciences, for we are bounde by the law of God and man to doe good unto all men and evil to noe man.”
It should be noted that none of the signers were themselves Quakers. They were arguing for the rights of others. Not surprisingly, this didn’t go down too well. Some of the signers were thrown into jail and ordered to recant. Locked in filthy, vermin-ridden cells, they did so – at least on paper. Who knows what was really in their hearts?
The Remonstrance proved to be ahead of its time, but the signers were vindicated when religious liberty was ensured in the Bill of Rights in 1791.
2. James Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments (1785): Patrick Henry was a fiery patriot famous for uttering the line, “Give me liberty or give me death!” But there was one area where Henry could not break with the British: All of his life, he argued in favor of church-state union.