When America’s founders ratified the Constitution, they created something that arguably had never existed in the world before: a republic where freedom of religion was explicitly enshrined in the charter, where toleration wasn’t just the whim of a benevolent ruler but the immutable law of the land. As George Washington wrote in his famous letter to the Jewish congregation of Newport:
It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
This was a radical break with history. At the time America was founded, all the great powers of Europe had state-supported churches and monarchs who claimed to rule by divine right, and religious wars and persecution were the order of the day: Catholics persecuting Protestants, Protestants persecuting Catholics, and both Catholics and Protestants persecuting those within their own sects who strayed from established dogma. In fact, the Spanish Inquisition was still executing heretics at the time of Thomas Jefferson’s presidency.
In Great Britain during the Elizabethan era, the houses of prominent Roman Catholic families were known for having secret rooms, called “priest holes” (see also), where Catholic priests could be hidden away at a moment’s notice when inquisitors came calling. Can you imagine what living in that society must have been like? Can you imagine living in a country where your freedom of belief hung by a thread, where the whim of a king made the difference between being grudgingly tolerated and an enemy of the state, and where literally at any moment you might have to abandon everything and go into hiding for your life – and that this happened so often that people planned for it?
Although America has seen (and practiced) its share of religious persecution, we’ve never had horrors like these. Instead, our founding document offered all comers a wonderful bargain: the freedom to live in peace, practice your beliefs as you see fit, even preach them to others. And in return we asked only, as President Washington said, that believers of all kinds be good citizens and obey the law of the land. We modern Americans have gotten used to this freedom, but that shouldn’t blind us to how truly unprecedented it was, nor how liberal and generous it is to theists of every denomination.
But for members of the modern Christian right, it isn’t enough. It’s not enough for them that they have the right to practice their beliefs as they see fit, free of government interference. It’s not enough for them that they have the unlimited freedom to fundraise, pray and preach as much as they like, in whatever media outlets they choose to publish. It’s not even enough for them that they can stud the landscape with churches and staff and maintain them tax-free.
What selfishness! What ingratitude! All American believers, Christian or not, were given a priceless gift by the founders, and these ones throw it on the ground and spit on it. They don’t want to be one religion among many; they want special privileges and special recognition. They think that freedom is worthless if it’s granted to people they dislike – like a spoiled child who wants a toy because no one in his class has it, and then throws a temper tantrum when other kids get them because he’s not the only one anymore. It’s telling that these fundamentalists apparently can’t just practice their religion on their own – they need constant hand-holding and head-patting from the government to stroke their egos and reassure them that they’re better and specialer than everyone else. It’s a clear sign of insecurity.
Benjamin Franklin had their number over two hundred years ago:
When a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil power, ’tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.
Think of this the next time some obnoxious theocrat is on the news, arguing that it’s unfair to him if his sect doesn’t get special rights. These people want us to think of them as proud, pious defenders of America’s Christian heritage (a claim which is, needless to say, utterly false). Instead, we should think of them as spoiled and petulant children, ungratefully rejecting the pledges of liberty that our founding generation purchased in blood, all because they want to be treated as if they were better than everyone else. Keep that image in your head, and it may help you put the theocrats’ demands in their proper context.