The problem is that this tidy narrative is an American myth. The real story of religion in America’s past is an often awkward, frequently embarrassing and occasionally bloody tale that most civics books and high-school texts either paper over or shunt to the side. And much of the recent conversation about America’s ideal of religious freedom has paid lip service to this comforting tableau.
From the earliest arrival of Europeans on America’s shores, religion has often been a cudgel, used to discriminate, suppress and even kill the foreign, the “heretic” and the “unbeliever”—including the “heathen” natives already here. Moreover, while it is true that the vast majority of early-generation Americans were Christian, the pitched battles between various Protestant sects and, more explosively, between Protestants and Catholics, present an unavoidable contradiction to the widely held notion that America is a “Christian nation.”
…America can still be, as Madison perceived the nation in 1785, “an Asylum to the persecuted and oppressed of every Nation and Religion.” But recognizing that deep religious discord has been part of America’s social DNA is a healthy and necessary step. When we acknowledge that dark past, perhaps the nation will return to that “promised…lustre” of which Madison so grandiloquently wrote.
This is what I was saying a while back with regards to another popular myth, most commonly expressed in the form of those COEXIST stickers and t-shirts. And I do mean “myth” in the specific sense of a story that expresses aspirations, values or perennial themes rather than historical truth. Let no one doubt that I’m all in favor of aspiring to create a society where religious beliefs are treated in the same way as other lifestyle choices: expressions of personality, peccadilloes at worst, not worth fighting about. But if you’re a religious person, you might regard me warily upon hearing this. Why would a fire-breathing atheist and aspirtualist like myself be supportive of this? Don’t I want a scorched-earth campaign against all metaphysical woo-woo to eliminate it for once and for all? Well, no, actually, partially because a society that demands of its members that they subordinate their beliefs about God, the human soul, the afterlife and holy books to a general principle of living and letting live is already a fully secular one.
What irritates me to no end about the COEXISTers is that they act as if this has been the inherent character of religion itself all along. It’s almost like a form of ingratitude — they refuse to recognize what a truly revolutionary innovation it was to separate church and state and how beneficial it was for everyone, especially believers. That is what permeated our cultural consciousness to the extent that we can hardly comprehend a person who thinks doctrinal differences are matters of life and death; after all, aren’t all religions just different paths to the same truth, different names for the same God? But at the time that Jefferson and Madison were implementing these new ideas, you could still find examples of people in Europe being tortured and executed as a result of sectarian fanaticism and mob rule, or for such heinous offenses as being rumored to have failed to remove one’s hat before a religious procession, as well as possessing a copy of Voltaire’s Philosophical Dictionary. That sort of thing was still typical behavior in “civilized” Europe, and had been ever since Constantine. It didn’t change until it was forced to. By all means, enjoy this postmodern form of domesticated religious tolerance that’s so commonplace now! Just don’t forget that it was secularism that gave it to you.