Saturday, August 11, 2007

Who originally championed religious freedom in America?

One of the blogs I read had a post recently that quoted parts of an email Barak Obama wrote to a Christian Broadcasting Network correspondent:
[From an email by Barak Obama]
For my friends on the right, I think it would be helpful to remember the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy but also our religious practice. Folks tend to forget that during our founding, it wasn’t the atheists or the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of the First Amendment…. It was the forbearers of Evangelicals who were the most adamant about not mingling government with religion, because they didn’t want state-sponsored religion hindering their ability to practice their faith as they understood it.

Whatever we once were, we’re no longer just a Christian nation; we are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, a Hindu nation, and a nation of non-believers. We should acknowledge this and realize that when we’re formulating policies from the state house to the Senate floor to the White House, we’ve got to work to translate our reasoning into values that are accessible to every one of our citizens, not just members of our own faith community.
Someone wrote a comment:
[explicative deleted].. go retake your basic American history; it was not the “forbearers [sic] of evangelicals” but Deists like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson who were so adamant!
With people so ignorant of their history these days it is unfortunate that the quoted excerpt left out the part in the original email where Barak made it clear who the “forbearers of Evangelicals” he referred to were:
...It was the persecuted minorities, it was Baptists like John Leland...
A quick search in google turns up the following information. The first recorded use of the phrase “separation of church and state” involved the Baptists.
The phrase "separation of church and state" is derived from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to a group identifying themselves as the Danbury Baptists. In that letter, referencing the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, Jefferson writes: "I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church & State
Who were these Danbuy Baptists to whom Jefferson was writing? Wikipedia explains:
The Danbury Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut sent a letter, dated October 7, 1801, to the newly elected President Thomas Jefferson, expressing concern over the lack in their state constitution of explicit protection of religious liberty, and against government establishment of religion.
In their letter to the President, the Danbury Baptists affirmed that "Our Sentiments are uniformly on the side of Religious Liberty — That Religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals — That no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious Opinions - That the legitimate Power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor..."
As a religious minority in Connecticut, the Danbury Baptists were concerned that a religious majority might "reproach their chief Magistrate... because he will not, dare not assume the prerogatives of Jehovah and make Laws to govern the Kingdom of Christ," thus establishing a state religion at the cost of the liberties of religious minorities.

Of course, these Baptists in Connecticut who were so concerned about protection of religious liberty were a persecuted minority. Now, especially in places where their religious point of view is a political majority, are Baptists still concerned about religious freedom? Not so much.

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