A reader questioned me about immigrants coming to America to escape religious persecution.

Americans generally take religious freedom for granted, but it has been gained through many struggles.

A review of early American history will present the nature of these struggles and the path to religious freedom.

In the early years of America, some Europeans sought economic benefits from the new land. In their quests for land and fortunes, they encountered an abundance of bloodshed between different faiths. The Spanish king was informed by his people in Florida that they, “…hanged the odious Lutheran settlers.” Even the pious Puritans who were persecuted in England revealed their own religious intolerance in the colonies.

As America won independence, there were still many examples of intolerance.

Many minority groups suffered abuse from established religions for their beliefs and practices, including Native Americans, Jews, Quakers, Baptists and Mormons to mention a few.

In some states only Christians could hold leadership positions, and Catholics could hold offices if they disclaimed papal authority. Some states had state-supported churches including Massachusetts and South Carolina. Delaware required a religious pledge to the Trinity. Jews did not have civil rights in Maryland.

People who worshipped in different ways were punished or killed. How many women accused of and then punished for being witches in Salem, Massachusetts were innocent? It is safe to say that the lack of tolerance was a problem in the early period of America.

Even in these distressful times of intolerance, two leaders wrote refreshing acceptance of minorities. Jefferson wrote, “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

George Washington wrote the following comments using an Old Testament verse to the Hebrew congregation in Newport, Rhode Island in 1790. “May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in the land continue to merit and enjoy the goodwill of the other inhabitants. While everyone shall sit safely under his own vine and fig-tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

Many leaders like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson took steps to solve some of the problems. Madison wrote “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,” in which he gave the reasons for what would become the separation of church and state.

Both leaders contributed to the writing of the Constitution and the First Amendment. The First amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

It is interesting to note that it was only in 1978 that the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed.“It shall be the policy of the United States to protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise the traditional religions of the American Indian, Eskimo, Aleut, and Native Hawaiians.”

The passing of this freedom act for native people to express their beliefs and practices is a good example to show that spiritual and personal equity are works in progress. America continues to face problems with social justice, but the effort to improve remains alive. People of faith must be mindful of problems and stand up. It is the silence of good people that gives room for harmful acts to grow. The Rev. Martin Luther King,Jr. wrote, “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”

It is true that religious oppression continues to plague many people in the world. Presently, there are 50 countries on the World Watch List for oppressive behavior toward religions. Also many people over the world are without food and shelter. America remains a country to which oppressed people come with the hopes of having a better life.

Can America meet the challenges of the people with needs?

Let’s pray for the will and strength to try.

Jefferson expressed the following idea about government, “The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only object of good government.”

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Earl Crow’s column is published Saturdays in the Winston-Salem Journal. Email him at ecrow1@triad.rr.com.

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