Tuesday, April 17, 2012

History of Religious Liberty in America

Rod Gragg is the author of a wonderful book titled Forged in Faith: How Faith Shaped the Birth of a Nation. In this book Gragg proposes that the American experience is unique in world history because it acknowledged the importance of Faith in God as one of the foundational principles. In light of current threats to religious liberty (HHS mandate) it is helpful to remember where we have been in order to understand where we are to go. I would like to share several paragraphs from his book below. "At a site up the Potomac River, Governor Calvert and his colonists established a settlement-the colony's capital-which they named St. Mary's City. The Jesuit priests exercised their religious freedom immediately by taking the Gospel to the region's North Americans. Eventually, Maryland's Indian nations, like those throughout America, would be overwhelmed by the advancing European civilization-peacefully or otherwise. Initially, however, some tribes in Maryland apparently welcomed the Catholic missionaries and the Gospel they bore. One Jesuit reported to his superiors that Chitomacon, the 'king' of Maryland's Piscataway tribe, had been converted to Christianity and baptized with his family.'For my part,'the priest wrote,'I would rather, laboring in the conversion of these Indians, expire on the bare ground, deprived of all human succor, and perishing with hunger, than once think of abandoning this holy work of God.' As they built their colony at St. Mary's City and elsewhere in Maryland, Catholics and Protestants worked together to forge a common culture despite the conflicts and suspicions of the day. The cooperative atmosphere was due in large part to the informal policy of religious toleration established by Cecilius Calvert, who followed the model his father had tried to implement at his short-lived NewFoundland colony. Maryland's charter cited 'a laudable and pious Zeal for extending Christian religion' as a motive for colonization, and Calvert established an oath of office for the colony's governors requiring them to support broad religious freedom for the day. Under the oath, the governor voewed that he would not 'directly or indirectly, trouble, molest or discountenance any person whatsoever, professing to believe in Jesus Christ....nor make any difference of persons in conferring offices, rewards or favors for or in respect to their said religion.' The Calverts also offered Maryland's colonists more self government than was afforded to their countrymen back in England. The colony's charter granted ruling authority to the colony's lord proprietor-with the 'Advice, Assent and Approbation' of a legislative assembly. The colony's charter thus set a precedent for American Government by stating that Maryland's colonists would have a legislative voice. They exercised it promptly. When, as Lord proprietor, Cecilius Calvert attempted to enact a series of laws, including capital punishment for idolatry and blasphemy, the Maryland Christians rejected them and asserted their rights to make law through the legilature. After some wrangling, the Lord proprietor agreed and granted the Marylanders an unusually broad degree of self government through their legislative assembly. As the Maryland colony grew, its Protestant population came to outnumber Catholics by three to one. No Catholic world power-not France, Spain, or Portugal-granted freedom of religion to Protestants, or allowed them to hold office. Maryland's Catholic administration did so, however: numerous Protestants were seated in the colony's legislature. Like his brother, Maryland's lord proprietor, Governor Leonard Calvert was Catholic, and thus the colony was administered by Catholics, but Protestants held real power in the legislative assembly. Together, Catholics and Protestants thus governed early Maryland and the colony's opening era was marked by peace. Eventually, however, old sectarian fears and suspicions were aroused in the colony, mainly by outsiders and new colonists. Tensions increased during the English civil wars, as many Catholics sided with King Charles I and the Royalists, while many Protestants, especially dissenters, back the Parliamentary forces. In 1645, Richard Ingle, a sea captain accused of piracy, raided St. Mary's City with two warships, claiming to act in the name of Parliament. Denouncing Maryland's lord protector as a Royalist, he and his crews plundered the town, burned several houses, seized stores of tobacco, and imprisoned Catholic leaders and priests. Governor Leonard Calvert fled to Virginia, and back in England Cecilius Calvert gave up his colony as lost. Leonard Calvert had not given up, however, and two years later the governor returned to Maryland with a small army, drove out the insurgents, and restored order. In 1649, in order to restore stability to the colony, reassure Protestants, and protect Catholics, Cecilius Calvert presented the colony's legislature with an exceptional legislative proposal for the day. If passed, it would turn Maryland's informal toleration of religion into law. It was officially called the Act Concerning Religion-better known as the Toleration Act of 1649-and the legislators did pass it. In a unique exercise for Colonial America, Maryland's Catholic and Protestant leaders jointly enacted a statute providing expanded religious freedom. ' Forasmuch as in a well governed and Christian Commonwealth matters concerning Religion and the honor of God ought in the first place to be taken into serious consideration and endeavored to be settled' it proclaimed,'no person professing to believe in Jesus Christ shall from heneforth be any ways troubled, molested or discountenanced for or in respect of his or her religion....nor in any way compelled to belief or exercise of any other Religion against his or her consent.' Although it protected religious liberty for Protestants and Catholics alike, it did not extend freedom of religion to everyone-Jews and Quakers were not officially included, for instance. Nor were the rights afforded Catholics to be long standing: within a few decades, politics, sectarian strife, a bourgeoning Protestant population, and government promotion of England's state church penalized all who were not Anglican and erased Maryland's distinction as a Catholic haven. America's Catholics would eventually be afforded full freedom of religion, and the Roman Catholic Church in turn would also accept the co-existence of other faiths. For its day, Maryland's Toleration Act was an exceptional achievement, and laid a keystone precedent for religious liberty in America. As with Roger Williams and William Penn, Cecilius Calvert was not motivated merely by pragmeatic politics: he too was following the biblical principle: 'whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.' That principle would eventually make freedom of faith a hallmark of American democracy." Today, that very freedom of faith is being called into question. The HHS mandate would penaliize Catholic institutions that fail to cover contraceptive coverage and abortificients to participating members of an organization. Please pray that we will once again be the "land of the free."

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