Is Religious Freedom American?

            Freedom of Religion and the expressions that define it have been at the forefront of American life from its earliest beginnings.  Consider these words:

        . . . for the worke wee haue in hand, it is by mutuall conset through a speciall overruleing providence, and a more then an ordinary approbation of the Churches of Christ to seeke out a place of Cohabitation and Consorteshipp vnder a due forme of Government both ciuill and ecclesiasticall.  In such cases as this the care of the publique must oversway all private respects, by which not onely conscience, but meare Ciuill pollicy doth binde vs; for it is a true rule that perticuler estates cannot subsist in the ruine of the publique.

        The end is to improue our liues to doe more seruice to the Lord the comforte and encrease of the body of christe whereof wee are members that our selues and posterity may be the better preserued from the Common corrupcions of the euill world to serue the Lord and worke out our Salvation vnder the power and purity of his holy Ordinances.

. . . for wee must Consider that wee shall be as a City vpon a Hill, the eies of all people are vppon vs; soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our god in this worke wee haue vndertaken and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from vs . . .1

            While the English might seem difficult to decipher, these words were spoken by John Winthrop on board the Arbella, as he and several hundred people embarked upon their journey to establish a colony in America known as the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  A similar understanding can be discerned from a document known as the Mayflower Compact:

We, whose names are underwritten, the loyal subject of our dread sovereign Lord King James . . . having undertaken, for the glory of God, and advancement of the Christian

faith . . . a voyage to plant the first colony in the northern parts of Virginia do, by these presents, solemnly and mutually, in the presence of God and one of another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil body politic . . . .2

            Those aboard the Mayflower were Separatists.  Those who came with Winthrop were Puritans.  While it is true that not all of the passengers on either voyage were Christian, they certainly understood the guiding doctrine of those who led these expeditions.  In Plymouth, no real separation existed, even though many of the settlers themselves were not Separatists.  A church was immediately established, even though they did not have a pastor and did not offer the sacraments.  In spite of these issues and the fact that it would be nearly a decade before they would have an ordained pastor, they still considered themselves as having established a true church.  They even built a fort after their first year that also served as their meetinghouse. One immediately discovers that the faith of the Separatists and the governance of their colony were intertwined without any necessary conflict.  The governance of the colony allowed for the settlers to carry on business and to survive, but the political leaders also assisted the church in protecting its territory, even to the point of intolerance of others.  All of these things took place with the fact that some within the group were non-Separatists.

            There are those who want to espouse the notion that America was not founded upon Christian principles and was, in fact, established as a non-religious entity.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Research the history of the founding of America.  From every colony to every form a government, religious freedom and religious influence were founding principles and practices. 

            Current government leaders may try to restrict religious freedom and even eliminate it.  As it was true for the founding fathers, it is necessary for people today to stand for the restoration of religious freedom in the United States.  Religious freedom does not require anyone to be religious, nor does it call for the discrimination against the non-religious.  It does protect the rights of those who wish to practice their faith, both in the spiritual and in the secular parts of society. 

            Christianity provided an indelible impression upon the founding of America and its establishing documents.  Because of persecution, both previously experienced and presently enacted, little desire existed to create a Christian federal government that would demand that all adhere to the Christian faith in order to maintain citizenship or voting rights. The nation, however, and its documents were profoundly influenced by Christianity.  It is important that Christians today both recognize the influence of Christianity on the founding of America and defend religious freedom.  This freedom is essential for those who are religious and for those who are not. 

1 Perry Miller and Thomas H. Johnson, eds. The Puritans: A Sourcebook of Their Writings (Mineola, NY: Dover Books, 2001), 195-99.

2 Catherine Millard, The Rewriting of America’s History (Camp Hill, PA: Horizon House Publishers, 1991), 19.