Freedom of Religion in America
“If God had pleased, He could surely have made you one people (professing one faith). But He wished to try and test you by that which He gave you. So try to excel in good deeds. To Him will you all return in the end, when He will tell you of what you were at variance.”
Quran, 5:49 (translated by Ahmed Ali)
Although we tend to think of freedom of religion as a principle brought to this country by the Puritan Pilgrims who were seeking to escape religious persecution in England, that’s not at all the case. The Puritans were seeking freedom to practice their rigorous brand of reformed Protestantism, but were not willing to extend that same freedom to others. They banned Anglicans and other Protestants, including Quakers, along with Roman Catholics and Jews, from the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay Colonies and much of New England. It was in the maverick colony of Rhode Island, founded by the English Baptist clergyman Roger Williams, that true freedom of religion first appeared–not only in colonial America, but in the entire world. The government of Williams’s colony was based on complete religious toleration and separation of church and state, allowing each household a voice in government and an equal share in the distribution of land, which Williams purchased from the Narragansett Indians in 1636.
And, so, the American experiment in religious toleration was born. Fortunately for America and the world, the concept of genuine religious freedom and the separation of church and state fostered by Roger Williams was adopted by the framers of the Constitution and incorporated into our way of life. Using concepts of tribal law learned from Native Americans, our founders improved on the less equitable democracies of Europe, and this new democracy became inextricably intertwined with freedom to practice any and all religions.
In an odd twist of history having as much to do with patterns of immigration as with conflicting religious beliefs, the Baptist reformed tradition of Rhode Island migrated south and west to create the Bible Belt, evolving into the conservative Christian fundamentalist movement that is prominent there today, especially among Southern Baptists. (The Bible Belt consists of most of the American Southeast along with southern Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa and much of Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Southern California.)
Meanwhile, the more exclusionary Puritan Christianity practiced throughout the rest of New England was influenced by a developing strain of liberalism at the newly founded divinity schools of Yale and Harvard, and metamorphosed into the more liberal mainline Protestantism and Unitarianism that characterize the religious tolerance of most of the northeastern United States today. The diversity of Christian belief throughout New England also developed largely through the immigration there of Southern Europeans, who changed the demographics of the region from what was once predominantly Dutch and English to a mixture of Roman Catholic Irish, Italians, Germans, and Poles, along with African Americans migrating from the South, and Asian immigrants. The South in general and the Bible Belt in particular remained more homogeneously Anglo-American and Protestant.