Historic Preservation, The Times We Live In
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Let’s take a road trip to help understand the history behind religious liberty

Touro Synagogue

In following coverage of the fight over the Supreme Court*, don’t worry if you have become confused about the concept of religious liberty. Those making the most noise either do not understand — or do not want to understand — this fundamental First Amendment right enshrined in the Constitution. People who should know better often sow confusion around the history and meaning of “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Before we go all 2020 and take a virtual road trip to visit the places that help us see why the religious persecution faced by earlier generations led to this all-important amendment, let’s begin with a quick summary of why religious liberty is on the radar screen today.

Recently two justices on the Supreme Court couldn’t pass up the chance to comment as they joined the court’s unanimous decision not to hear the appeal of Kim Davis, a Kentucky public official who refused to issue marriage licenses because of her personal religious views against same-sex unions. Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito sided with their colleagues in the decision, mind you, but Thomas used the occasion to write a four-page missive about his views of religious liberty, which I would cite as misguided at best. Alito signed on for good measure.

The decision not to hear the case was the right one. To put it simply, her religious beliefs were not the reason Davis was in court. She was in court because she refused to do her legal duty, as clerk of Rowan County, to issue lawful marriage licenses.

Thomas, however, has a history of confusion when it comes to religious liberty. In a case just last year, he suggested that state governments don’t necessarily have to honor the First Amendment’s religious liberty clauses at all. The implications are staggering** and, I would add even as a non-lawyer, un-American.

Thomas, in his thoughts on the Davis case, argues that religious liberties are somehow infringed upon when they are not privileged above civil law. And here is why that is a problem:

  • Justice Thomas, it seems, has one particular set of religious interests in mind: those of conservative Christians.
  • If you happen to be a progressive Christian or person of faith (like me) and you favor same-sex marriage because it aligns with your religious beliefs (as it does with mine), those concerns somehow are never raised by Clarence Thomas.

In a Washington Post op-ed, columnist David von Drehle helps clarify the challenge when he writes,

“As he did in 2015, Thomas notes that same-sex marriage is not mentioned in the Constitution; and once again, it is an empty feint toward originalism. Opposite-sex marriage is not mentioned there, either. At the time of the Constitutional Convention, certain devout Americans, called Shakers, condemned all marriage as “whoredom.” Originalism therefore appears to teach that protection of religious freedom (for example, the right of Shakers to condemn marriage) does not extend to imposing one’s beliefs on the unenumerated rights of other citizens.” (emphasis added)

That’s exactly what the originalism of the constitution teaches. Kim Davis doesn’t believe in same-sex marriages. That’s her right. But the constitution’s First Amendment is clear that her religious beliefs cannot be imposed on others taking permissible actions under civil law.

Thomas and Alito either fundamentally disagree with that position and/or are worried about some future case where those whose religious beliefs condemn same-sex relationships will be labeled “bigots.” But the Constitution doesn’t protect people who have different religious beliefs from criticism. If I want to criticize a conservative charismatic Catholic group for suggesting that women should be subordinate to their husbands, that’s my right. Likewise, if a conservative Catholic wants to criticize the Episcopal church’s support for same-sex marriage, that’s their right. What the Constitution does is to bar courts and governments from preferring one set of religious views over any other set — or over nonreligious views. And that is important to know because any serious study of religious life in America uncovers how quickly the persecuted become the persecutors in this country.

I come by my interest in this subject naturally as my father, that rare breed of liberal Southern evangelical Christian, worked tirelessly to tell his neighbors why Baptists of all denominations — should understand and cherish the real meaning of religious liberty.

There are many times our historic places point us to the real story behind an issue and why it is important today. This is one of them.

Our virtual road trip will help us understand that history as we visit simple wooden buildings, elegant 18th century architectural masterpieces, and soaring western landscapes where we begin to see the tip of the iceberg of the true depth and breadth of our nation’s religious heritage, and why true religious liberty is such a precious gift.

One of the widely misunderstood stories in American history is the establishment of freedom of religion and the role of tiny Rhode Island in that struggle. In numerous trips to Providence and Newport through the years, I’ve often made the time to visit landmarks of the nation’s move to ensure that all had religious freedom, including the right not to worship.

The First Baptist Church
The First Baptist Church, Providence, RI – one of the landmarks of religious freedom and America’s founding upon the principle of the separation of church and state

Providence is a city, as its name suggests, that celebrates its religious history. Few communities carry off having a “Steeple” street with the historical understanding that Providence brings to its houses of worship. And the most important of those sacred places in the country’s fight for religious freedom is The First Baptist Church, Providence, which was the very first Baptist church that was established in America. Along with the National Park Service’s Roger Williams National Memorial, The First Baptist Church, Providence tells an important colonial-era story of how a persecuted religious denomination led the fight for separation of church and state.

Before Williams and his views came to prominence in Rhode Island, the colonies used traditional approaches to religious tolerance. In other words, they were intolerant. The majority religions, all Christian and usually of the Anglican or Congregational denominations, persecuted those whose faith differed from the government-sanctioned variety.

The Puritans in Massachusetts, Williams first home, were no different. Having brought their antipathy to Catholicism and Paganism with them to America, the devout Puritans, among other injustices, launched the first war on Christmas. The Bible did not sanction the holiday, which in their eyes was both papist (invented by Catholics, they believed) and pagan (in that it co-opted the winter solstice festivities of pre-Christians). And “people tended to get excessively, well, merry…” notes religious scholar Steven Waldman. In 1659 the Puritans made Christmas illegal.***

That persecution and approach to tamping down religious dissent changed with Williams and his work with Baptists and others in Rhode Island. Roger Williams and his followers were convinced that religion was a matter of conscience between an individual and their God, and the founding documents for Providence indicate a clear division between the public, civil realm and the private world of belief. The phrase “only in civil things” used in the founding documents established the principal of religious liberty that was to become the First Amendment.

James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, was certainly influenced by Williams’ work. Madison also learned about religious freedom from personal interactions with Baptists in Virginia, near his home, Montpelier.

Virginia’s Baptists were very much persecuted by the ruling Anglican church. Instead of government favoring one denomination or belief, as under the Puritans/Congregationalists in New England or the Anglicans in Virginia, Madison argued that the state should neither “constrain nor coddle” religion. Madison suggested that the best way to promote religion was to leave it alone. That was then, and still remains today, a radical concept. In forging a new way for church and state to relate, Madison believed that religious liberty would arise from a “multiplicity of sects” with different denominations and religions all working to find converts and followers.

In other words, Madison wanted open competition. He also wanted rules so that the majority religions could not use their status to hold down the newer and smaller sects. The first place we see that in the colonies is in Rhode Island. It was Madison who helped make that vision part of our national values. The First Baptist Church, Providence, the Roger Williams National Memorial, and Montpelier give this history a grounding in place.

One of the important facets of religious liberty in America is how it covers all religions, plus those who do not practice any religion. So Newport, Rhode Island’s Touro Synagogue is another stop we should make on our road trip. Dedicated in 1763, Touro is the oldest synagogue building in the United States. It is a structure of “exquisite beauty and design, steeped in history and ideals.” And while it is among the most architecturally distinguished buildings of 18th century America, it stands alone as the most historically significant Jewish building in the United States.

The congregation was founded in 1658 by the descendants of Jewish families who had fled the Inquisitions in Spain and Portugal, to move to the Caribbean. Those same descendants then left the Caribbean seeking the greater religious tolerance that Rhode Island offered.

By the time those families came to Newport, the “lively experiment” that differentiated Rhode Island from the other colonies was already underway. Touro’s unique place in American history came about in 1790, after the founding of the republic. In response to a letter from its congregation, President George Washington eloquently defined the new nation’s standard for religious freedom and civil liberties. He declared that America would “give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

Washington was building on Madison’s foundation. Yet, while Steven Waldman describes Madison’s work as the “ingenious, counterintuitive, and often-misunderstood blueprint for the religious liberty we enjoy today,” it is work that is very much unfinished and always in contention.

One of our challenges is that many Americans leave out large percentages of our fellow citizens because they consider religious freedom only from the Christian context. And the story of our country’s intolerance can be difficult to face in light of our professed belief in freedom of religion. In the history that actually happened, as opposed to the one we often tell ourselves, African spirituality and Islam were purged from the religious practices of the slaves, creating what one scholar calls a “spiritual holocaust.” At the time of the nation’s founding, Waldman notes, about 10% of the slaves, literally hundreds of thousands of people, were Muslims. There were probably more Muslims in America at the time than Jews or Catholics.

Native American spirituality, like the fight against the spirituality of the slaves, was purged primarily with violence. And it was that spirituality and history that brought me to New Mexico, Acoma Sky City, and Mount Taylor, a site threatened by uranium mining.

Mount Taylor
Mount Taylor in New Mexico, a site threatened with uranium mining. Visible from up to 100 miles away, it is a pilgrimage site for as many as 30 Native American tribes and it has special religious significance to the Acoma people.

Mount Taylor is a stunning landscape. Often covered with snow, it is visible from up to 100 miles away, including from the 357-foot mesa that houses the oldest continuously inhabited community in America. While it is a pilgrimage site for as many as 30 Native American tribes, Mount Taylor has special religious significance to the Acoma people.

Acoma Sky City — the historic home of the pueblo — sits on the top of a mesa that rises up like the tower on a cathedral from the New Mexico landscape. I first took my daughter to see the site as a young fifth grader. After reaching the top of the mesa, we spent the next hour and a half touring the historic Mission Church of San Estevan Rey, because this is a culture where Spanish, Catholic, and Native American spirituality comes together in a melting pot. On later visits I discovered more of the richness of that tradition, including the importance of Mount Taylor. When we consider the breadth of sacred places and religious beliefs in America, most of us have to expand our view.

To expand that view, consider the wealth of information that is available for those willing to learn more of the history concerning our religious heritage and freedom of religion.

  • Remember the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the dozens of important court cases they fought to gain their freedom.
  • Learn about the change that happened with the alignment of Jews and Christians during World War II.
  • The fight over prayer in public schools, where the Supreme Court ruled that the majority religion doesn’t get special privileges, is a misunderstood decision, long resisted by Protestants.
  • Stop and consider the impacts of the entry of millions of Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists into our society in terms of religious freedom.
  • And many changes, such as the political alliance of conservative Catholics and Evangelicals after decades of fighting each other, have come in my lifetime.

I have also witnessed the religious right’s confusion of an individual’s practice of a religion and the push by corporations and others to discriminate against LGBTQ individuals because of the religious beliefs of the owners or managers. Those corporations operate in the business sector where we all live and work under a secular system of laws, public investment, and taxation. Recently the approach taken by the majority Christian religion to cast themselves as a persecuted minority has again raised its ugly head.

Any serious consideration of life in America realizes how quickly the persecuted become the persecutors in this country. Puritans, who fled religious harassment in Europe, quickly moved to hang Quakers. Evangelical Christians, who led the way for religious freedom early in our history, have seen many of their leaders turn against it in our own time. Conservative Catholics, long vilified in America, are now working through the courts to place their religious views on a majority who disagree with their theology.

The powerful effort to demonize, marginalize, and persecute others who are not Christians “represents a disintegration of the basic compact that sustains religious freedom for everyone,” Waldman maintains. The lines of attack today against Muslims are strikingly similar to those used in the past against Baptists, Mormons, Catholics, Jews, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Native Americans.

James Madison decried the “unchristian timidity” of those Protestants who wanted government support to prop up their church. Christians, especially of the right-wing variety, convey an image of a petty faith and an insecure God, more focused on power than Christ-like politics.

Williams embraced freedom. We should do the same. Mount Taylor, rising above the rugged and beautiful New Mexico landscape; the First Baptist Church, Providence; and Newport’s Touro Synagogue all tell me that to believe in freedom requires, in historian John Barry’s words, “faith in the freedom of thought, of conscience.” These landmarks tell me we can do better, if we work to understand the true meaning of religious liberty.

(NOTE: During October, I am writing articles on how history and the places where history happened can help us understand the issues we are facing as a country and a democracy. Besides this story of religious liberty, you can find posts on the use of misinformation, wrongful imprisonment and racial violence, voter suppression, and revealed history, in addition to a book review on how democracies die by clicking on the links.)

More to come…


*This isn’t a post about Amy Coney Barret’s confirmation process, but my take is that no judge is qualified who believes that a president who has yet to serve a full term should get five years’ worth of court picks in a four-year term. (Scalia and Ginsburg died four years and seven months apart.)

**Go here to read more about how Clarence Thomas thinks a state could establish an official religion and not be in violation of the first amendment. Seriously.

***Thankfully the war on Christmas soon went away until it was rejuvenated in another day and time by FOX News as a false political wedge issue. And as a FYI, the Puritans morphed into Congregationalists over the course of the 17th century.

Initial image: Touro Synagogue (credit National Trust for Historic Preservation)

This entry was posted in: Historic Preservation, The Times We Live In


I am David J. Brown (hence the DJB) and I originally created this personal blog more than ten years ago as a way to capture photos and memories from a family vacation. After the trip was over I simply continued writing. Over the years the blog has changed to have a more definite focus aligned with my interest in places that matter, reading well, roots music, and more. My professional background is as a national nonprofit leader with a four-decade record of growing and strengthening organizations at local, state, and national levels. This work has been driven by my passion for connecting people in thriving, sustainable, and vibrant communities.


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