Religion and Freedom, Religion and Slavery
When wisely channeled, diversity can become a source of strength, not weakness.
In an 1822 letter to Edward Livingston, Madison summed up what he regarded as a defining requirement for preserving both political freedom and religious liberty:
An alliance or coalition between Government and religion cannot be too carefully guarded against. . . . Every new and successful example therefore of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters is of importance . . . religion and government will exist in greater purity, without (rather) than with the aid of government.
Madison took this principle so seriously he even opposed Congress appointing a chaplain at taxpayers' expense. As he explained to Livingston: "It would have been a much better proof to their Constituents of their pious feeling if the members had contributed for the purpose, a pittance from their own pockets."
Madison's point is clear to all but Christianists and other bigots. Religious diversity aids in the preservation of a free society.
Madison, Jefferson, Washington, Adams and other Founders had considerable religious support for their efforts. For example, America's Baptists strongly supported Jefferson and Madison's successful efforts to establish the separation of church and state in Virginia. Today's degenerate Southern Baptist leadership repudiates their own history while remaining silent as to the reasons behind their ancestors' actions.
Did the Founders' Vision Succeed?
Our Founders' effort to create a space for religious expression free from political privilege was largely successful. Religion provided the moral energy to empower many of the finest reform movements in American history, including the abolition of slavery, abolishing child labor, women's suffrage, and the civil rights movement. Not all religiously inspired reforms were wise or successful. The folly of Prohibition comes to mind, as well as the contemporary battle over a woman's control of her body. There are no guarantees free citizens will always act wisely. But whether it be foolish or wise, in a free society religious diversity forces advocates of reform or the status quo to put their arguments in terms other Americans can accept.
This necessity is important for two reasons. First, those principles all or virtually religions agree upon are important ones worthy of constant attention. These include that we live in a larger context than our private interests, that this context has powerful ethical dimensions and among these dimensions are values such as kindness, generosity, and a dislike of violence. Religious people putting their arguments in these terms not only enrich the national dialogue, they also become more aware of what they share in common with others. Given Christianity's long history of religious violence and sectarianism, this is important.
This brings me to the second reason. Having to put political arguments in broadly secular terms weakens sectarianism's poisonous influence. It rewards people in different faith communities that can communicate with other communities about issues of common concern. Democracy and freedom are strengthened.
People's religious commitments gave them the moral strength to stand for what they regarded as right while the need to appeal to people in other faith traditions forced them to argue in universal terms. To the degree their motives and their methods were harmonious, they contributed to raising the moral level of their society. The Quakers achieved this goal while opposing slavery. Martin Luther King made his strongest arguments in terms that atheists and non-Christians alike could support because of our common humanity. His religion gave him added strength to risk his life, but his arguments to the rest of us did not depend on our agreeing with his version of Christianity. Or any version.
Gus diZerega is a Gardnerian Elder with over 25 years practice, including six years close study with a Brazilian shaman. He has been active in interfaith work off and on for most of those 25 years as well. He has conducted workshops and given presentations on healing, shamanism, ecology and politics at Pagan gatherings in the United States and Canada. Follow Gus on Facebook.
Gus blogs at Pointedly Pagan.