Jonathan Zimmerman, a history professor from NYU, has a brief rundown of blasphemy laws in America’s past, including at the time of the founding in many of the colonies. He highlights Massachusetts and Maryland, as I have in my past writings as well.
It starts, like so much else, with the Puritans. Although we still tell our kids that the Puritans came to the New World to find “freedom,” their laws tell another story. In 1636, for instance, the Massachusetts Bay Colony made blasphemy – defined as “a cursing of God by atheism, or the like” – punishable by death.
So did the colony of Maryland, in its famous 1649 “Act of Toleration.” We remember that law as granting rights to Catholics, forgetting that it omitted Jews; indeed, the measure made it a capital crime to deny Jesus Christ as the son of God. It also specified death at the stake as the penalty for blasphemy, defined as “acursing or wicked speaking of God.”
With the founding of the United States, the federal government and most states guaranteed religious liberty. But many states extended or even sharpened their anti-blasphemy laws on the curious grounds that America remained “Christian.”
In 1811, for example, New York’s highest court upheld the conviction of a man who had publicly declared that “Jesus Christ was a bastard, and his mother must be a whore.” The court found that if the accused had insulted Islam or Buddhism, which the chief judge dismissed as “superstitions,” his speech would have been protected. But “we are a Christian people,” the judge continued, “and the morality of the country is deeply engrafted upon Christianity, and not upon the doctrines or worship of those imposters.”
Even Pennsylvania got in on the act. Founded by the Quaker dissident William Penn, who had himself served eight months in the Tower of London on a blasphemy charge, the colony began as a beacon of religious tolerance. But after independence, the state’s supreme court upheld an 1824 blasphemy conviction of a man who called the Bible “a mere fable.”
In another context, the court allowed, the accused’s words might have been legal. But “when spoken in a Christian land, and to a Christian audience,” they were “an insult … directly tending to disturb the peace.”
Which sounds very much like how they are defended in Muslim countries today. This reveals the danger of the entire “Christian nation” argument, which can be used to justify all manner of repressive laws.