The Roots of US Religious Tolerance

From the Archive: Ex-Sen. Rick Santorum’s accusation that President Obama follows a “phony theology,” one not “based on the Bible,” revives the right-wing notion that the United States must be a “Christian nation” and that “separation of church and state” is a “myth,” a topic that Baptist Minister Howard Bess addressed in 2011.

By the Rev. Howard Bess (Originally published Jan. 21, 2011)

Most people do not realize the meaning of being a Baptist. Theologically, we cover the full spectrum from right to left. We are scattered politically throughout Republicans, Democrats, Tea Partiers and None of the Above. Our hallmark is freedom.

Differing opinions are our strength, and we feel free to speak what other religious folk might call heresy. We are suspicious of all hierarchies, and when we feel our freedom is being challenged, we are quick to start another church. Baptist of course. There are far more varieties of Baptists than all the products that will ever be produced by Heinz.

Statue of Roger Williams by Franklin Simmons

Though we now cover the world, Baptists are a uniquely American phenomenon, dating back to early colonial days when Roger Williams was driven out of Massachusetts by the Congregationalists. (Ironically, these Massachusetts Puritans had fled England to avoid persecution for their religious beliefs, only to land in America and begin persecuting others for their religious beliefs.)

In 1636, Williams founded Providence Plantation, the first American colony truly dedicated to the free practice of religion (though even in Rhode Island, Jews and Catholics were looked upon with suspicion).

Though Williams started the first Baptist church in America in Providence, I believe Baptists made their finest contribution to American life in Virginia in the years after the Revolution. The new United States, with 13 member states, did not know what to do with religion in America. Though Thomas Jefferson was the country’s most prominent advocate of freedom of religion, another important figure was his neighbor, James Madison.

Neither Jefferson nor Madison liked what was going on in Virginia. At the time, Baptist preachers and other dissenters were required to get a government issued license to preach. Naturally the Baptist preachers kept on preaching without benefit of a license leading to whippings, fines and jail time. Still, they continued to preach.
One firebrand preacher named John Leland became friends with Madison and convinced him that there should be no state church, that a complete separation between church and state was the only answer.

This wall of separation was born in Virginia and a Baptist was the prime mover. Subsequently, this principle was embedded in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution with the mandate that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Since then, Baptists have remained in the forefront of the struggle to keep government out of religion. Our watchdog agency is the Baptist Joint Committee, a powerful Washington, D.C., lobby that regularly presents briefs before the U.S. Supreme Court. BJC, now 75 years old, keeps Baptists across the country informed about the constant stream of religious freedom cases that come before the High Court.

In 2011, two church/state issues were making news, though under-reported in the daily newspapers. The first was President Barack Obama’s announcement of new clarifying policies for government partnerships with faith-based organizations. For many years faith-based organizations have provided services that are funded by federal grants. However, under President George W. Bush, the funding of faith-based organizations was greatly expanded.

Without congressional approval or oversight, President Bush by executive order established a whole new federal agency, called the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Under it, President Bush was able to funnel hundreds of millions of dollars to faith-based organizations.

On one level, the idea is not a bad one. Many faith-based agencies do wonderful work with people with special needs. Many times they have been shown to do tasks better and more effectively than government agencies. However, under the Bush program, violations of church-and-state separation were numerous. Large block grants were made to religious organizations with little oversight.

After taking office, President Obama endorsed the program but promised new regulations and better oversight. He issued the new policies, forbidding organizations to engage in explicitly religious activities. Government-funded programs must not include religious content. Many observers had hoped Obama would go further and require religious organizations to form separate not-for-profit entities. He chose not to take that step, while promising to closely monitor the programs and to require transparency in their operations.

The other looming issue is how the United States will treat the expanding religious diversity in America. Will government treat all religions evenhandedly or will some face discrimination? House Speaker John Boehner and Rep. Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, called for investigation of “radical” Muslims. Dare the Federal government investigate those of a particular religious persuasion?

J. Brent Walker, Executive Director of BJC, commented: “Ours is not a Christian nation, as some contend, but made up of many faiths, including now 17 percent who embrace no faith at all. Our plush pluralism is something to be celebrated, not something to be feared. And our biggest challenge today may be how we view Islam and treat our Muslim friends.”

I am pleased to be a part of a tradition that celebrates religious freedom. Diversity is good for us all.

The Rev. Howard Bess is a retired American Baptist minister, who lives in Palmer, Alaska. His e-mail address is [email protected].

12 comments for “The Roots of US Religious Tolerance

  1. Jim Faubel
    February 28, 2012 at 15:47

    James Madison didn’t need to learn about Separation of Church and State from the Baptists. As early as 1750, the Constitutions of the Masonic Lodges were published in the Colonies. The principles found in these Constitutions include: Separation of Church and State, Separation of Powers, Checks and Balances, and One man one vote. Virtually all of these Principles made it into the US Constitution in one form or another.

    At least one-third of the Founding Fathers were Masons (some say as high as one-half, but only one-third can be verified). BTW, William Penn was also a Mason.

  2. The Philospher
    February 28, 2012 at 11:17

    I would also like to suggest, for those interested to, look into William Penn. He may be considered the United States original Founding Father, for it was his ideas and philosophies of government, religious freedom, and liberty in general which seem to be entrenched in the United States Constitution and the ideals with whcih the United States was founded uppon. Here is a link you may wish to read concerning William Penn;

  3. bobzz
    February 27, 2012 at 23:01

    I’m curious. Was it a Volkswagen? That bumper sticker was de rigueur in Austin decades ago. It is good to question authority. It is equally good to question the authority of them that question authority. Both could be wrong. Some could be right for the wrong reason. It’s complicated. One thing I agree wholeheartedly: complete separation of church and state. I do not even vote. Had I voted for Bush, I would be partially responsible for Iraq. A vote for Obama, and I would be partially responsible for the continued pursuit of war in Afghanistan. Christians should be aware of what is going on, but leave actual politicking to outsiders. Mind our own business.

  4. sig arnesen
    February 27, 2012 at 21:48

    My daughter purchsed a car that had a bumber sticker that said, “Question Authority.”
    Right on!

  5. bobzz
    February 27, 2012 at 17:04

    Bess writes, “However, under President George W. Bush, the funding of faith-based organizations was greatly expanded.” After reading David Kuo’s, “Tempting Faith: A Inside Story of Political Seduction.” Bush budgeted billions but spent very little. This was all show for the benefit of his supporters. Kuo was Bush’s special assistant to the President to manage those programs. He was in a position to know.

    Kurzweil comments: “…religion is by its very nature intolerant.” No, not by its very nature. This does not apply to the apostolic church. The problem is that Christians no longer hold to the pattern and life of the apostolic church. That church certainly evangelized, but in the final analysis, it lived and let live—until it became political under Constantine and especially the Thedosians. Then tolerance was lost except for the most insightful.

  6. Morton Kurzweil
    February 27, 2012 at 13:00

    The Reverend Bess has expressed a rational argument for religious toleration. The problem is that religion is by its very nature intolerant. Every belief, if taken to its logical conclusion, makes certainty the essence of any religious or political social system.
    Every religion and political party believes in a specific set of truths based on what is believed to be a source of knowledge. This is necessary for such groups to gain control of public behavior. There is no knowledge but degrees of uncertainty. There are no facts but opinions. Those who believe choose to accept group opinion as factual. Group support feels right. It is a instinctive feeling of right that is accepted as the truth. This is useful in coordinating group behavior. It is decidedly perilous to a society interested in the future, rather than the past. Logic is not the way to a man’s belief. Fear and dependency to authority is the road to communal success in politics and religion.

  7. chmoore
    February 27, 2012 at 01:33

    There are countries out there who have theocracy, either by itself or as a hybrid combination with some kind of republic. That results in religious leaders, who presumably are supposed to be accountable to God, or at least they want everyone else to believe they are.

    The problem is, there’s no way to verify a leader’s accountability to God. Anyone can claim it, but claiming it in a political context often means falsely claiming to have the divine approval of the Almighty, which is really just a cheap trick to try to supercede the authority of some other human person.

    The moment any religion is able to insert real authority into government, then accountability to the governed is compromised.

    No human can know with complete certainty the absolute truth about God – mistakes will be made. That’s why we have forgiveness. For a politician to claim they have such knowledge, is to illegitimately presume to actually be a god of sorts.

    Give to Ceasar what is Ceasar’s, and to God what is God’s – which simply means, no Ceasar, emperor, king, prime minister, president, holy see, supreme leader nor any other human leader is any kind of god.

    Beyond that, no one particular religion or religious leader has the absolute truth on God either; hence the benefit of having multiple religious points of view.

  8. bsd
    February 26, 2012 at 23:00

    At least Judaism, and possibly other religions, have used B.C.E. and A.C.E. for dates rather than a Christian oriented designation. However, it stands for Before the common Era and After the common era.

  9. Michael Meyer
    February 26, 2012 at 18:33

    I suggest using The acronym A.C.E. rather than A.D. or B.C. when writing the date of the day. AFTER THE CHRISTIAN ERA You know brainwashed fanatics die hard ?

  10. Davidtlegrand
    February 26, 2012 at 10:41

    Is anyone responding?

  11. Davidtlegrand
    February 26, 2012 at 10:40

    Is anyone replying

Comments are closed.