*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***
It is the 16th of January 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org; I’m Dan van Voorhis.
Today on the show, we head all the way back to 1993. Well, actually, much further back as well, it was on this day in 1993 that the Government of the United States of America officially recognized the signing of Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom on this day in 1786. Since 1993 the 16th of January has been formally the National Religious Freedom day.
So, in honor of this day, I thought I would reflect a bit on the history of religious freedom in America, especially as it pertains to the Christian church.
As we saw the other day with a show on John Winthrop, the first Puritans were interested in freedom of religion- but freedom for the religion of their choice and not others. Remember that Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams suffered for suggesting a little bit of freedom in their particular expression of Christianity. Roger Williams, of course, started the Rhode Island experiment, and it is not perfect- but it established Baptists, not Puritans, as those who would push for leniency in the colonial Christian church. And places such as Pennsylvania and New York saw religious freedom as an economic issue. The more productive settlers, the better, and so both places opened to not just Christian minorities but Jewish people and soon the fashionable Deist.
And the Founding Generation is far, far, far from the Winthrop crowd. As I have belabored in other places, the Founding Generation was less religious than 20th century and modern American legislatures. Thomas Jefferson- no friend of historic Christianity who famously wrote the letter to the Danbury Baptist Church (yup, Baptists get a gold star here) arguing for a wall of operation between church and state. While he used language from Roger Williams, instead of protecting the church, the wall was to preserve the state in Jefferson's mind. That letter was written in 1802, years after Jefferson wrote what he considered the pinnacle of his achievements: signing the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. This statue would be imported into the Constitution's First Amendment and has served as a defining element of public religious life in America.
Recently a famous pastor with Fundamentalist leanings condemned religious freedom in America- he claimed this led people to hell. A lively conversation arose over whether or not America should be a theocracy. Please note that this is often “a scare word.” Some have suggested replacing that with a “confessional state” (which is terrifying as a historian of the Early Modern period).
The fact is that freedom of Religion was not initially that big a sticking point. The 19th century represented a kind of wilderness wandering for the American church. Sure there were revivals and denominations and all sorts of things we have talked about on this show. And the people, it could be argued, were religious, and they knew their bible. But the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant establishment was untroubled by new religious movements that tended to keep to themselves- whether they be utopian communities or in new territories (think of the Mormons in Utah).
It was the 20th century that saw the collision of both puritan and enlightenment values regarding the separation of Church and state. And here, we find a particular kind of American religious legalism. But maybe not the legalism you’re thinking of. Instead, it is the legalism suggested by Alexander Solzhenitsyn concerning an America to which he had just immigrated. Legalism, in this sense, is an overbearing desire to conform to the present law as if that made one righteous. Have a problem? Make a law, find a law, keep the law! And so as two cultures- began to collide in a new century of media- the American people looked to the Supreme Court to tell them what was legal and “righteous”- on this show, we have looked at a number of the landmark cases in American history and will undoubtedly keep running down this fascinating thread (and a heads up for the new Weekend Edition- because this stuff is right in that wheelhouse).
It was 235 years ago today that Virginia passed the statute for Religious Freedom, and 28 years ago, the U.S. began recognizing January 16th as National Religious Freedom Day.
The last word for today comes from Matthew 22
15 Then, the Pharisees met together to find a way to trap Jesus in his words. 16 They sent their disciples, along with the supporters of Herod, to him. “Teacher,” they said, “we know that you are genuine and that you teach God’s way as it really is. We know that you are not swayed by people’s opinions, because you don’t show favoritism. 17 So tell us what you think: Does the Law allow people to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
18 Knowing their evil motives, Jesus replied, “Why do you test me, you hypocrites? 19 Show me the coin used to pay the tax.” And they brought him a denarion. 20 “Whose image and inscription is this?” he asked.
21 “Caesar’s,” they replied.
Then he said, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” 22 When they heard this they were astonished, and they departed.
This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 16th of January 2022 brought to you by 1517 at 1517.org.
The show is produced by a man whose favorite Caesers don’t include Julius but Romero, former Dodger Cedeno, and Milan (who makes the food for small dogs). He is Christopher Gillespie.
The show is written and read by a man who wants to tell you if the following sentence makes any sense: do something about it “Cat Power has a new album of Covers.” I’m van Voorhis.
You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.