When the story is told of the American relationship with religious freedom, the persecution and expulsion of certain groups because of religious bigotry will lead many to conclude that it is just one more evidence of a failed experiment in liberty. Ironically, the descendants of those groups most persecuted will probably not be in that chorus. What is it that they understand that contemporary America can learn from?
As a descendant of Mormon pioneers, Latter-day Saints, who were persecuted in ways unknown by most Americans, perhaps I have a unique sense of the failings of our nation's ideals on religious freedom. Attacked and driven from their lawful property by mobs and denied the fruits of their labors by state and federal government; murdered and raped with no legal justice, and denied their basic human and political rights including their sacred right to practice their faith openly, to vote, and the rights of self-government the Saints never lost hope that America would live true to its ideals.
The founder and prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Joseph Smith, wrote key tenants of the faith and titled them "The Articles of Faith." One of these tenants states, "We believe in honoring obeying and sustaining the law." Members of the church were constantly challenged to live this tenant as they struggled to balance the demand of their conscience before God and the corrupt distegard of constitutional law in their time. They kept the faith that in time free constitutional government would improve human nature and secure for them the promises made by the Founders of the nation.
Many young students in America today are taught that the failings of our society to live up to the ideals enshrined in our founding is evidence that our Founders and our founding documents were inherently flawed and that limited government allows the debased nature of man to persecute the weak. It is easier to convince students of this when historical studies that would expose students to the conditions of human society prior to the founding of this nation are omitted in primary and secondary education. I wonder if students judge human society against some illusive utopia that no civil society in this world has lived up to? Far too many Americans today lack the perspective of those groups most persecuted for their faith. They understood that their plight in America was better than it would have been elsewhere and they new that the society Americans where trying to create had extraordinary potential. They continued in a fervent hope that the best in human nature would triumph and that in time the citizens of this nation would live better those values enshrined in our Founding.
If it was the intent of the Framers of our Constitution to produce a civil society "more perfect" than those that proceeded it, which I believe it was, then the measuring stick we should use to judge the success of their experiment must sit within an accurate portrait of history and not in the impossible measure of perfection. Saints understood that had their church formed in Europe a hundred years earlier their church would not have survived, this understanding made it easier to endure persecutions and injustice with hope that the Constitution would someday protect their posterity's free exercise of religion. I believe my ancestors look down from heaven today and see many of their hopes fulfilled.
In the "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments" of 1785, Madison laid the foundation for religious freedom that would be enshrined in the Constitution. He argued that religious freedom in the New World had acted like a fertilizer on the virtues of religion in society and that religious freedom was responsible for improving the virtues of not only the clergy and the laity, but the state as well. The relationship between the state and religion in the Old World produced centuries of war and tyranny in the name of God. Within the Christian world alone, almost "fifteen centuries of ecclesiastical establishments" had produced "pride and indolence in the clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, and superstition, bigotry, and persecution in both."
This dangerous alliance of church and state not only "lead away the souls of men," it's influence enticed and propagated corruption within government. Governments that saw the establishment of religion as a convenient auxiliary, used the power to "erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of civil authority... and in many instances upholding the thrones of political tyranny... In no instances have they been seen the guardians of liberties of the people."
These shameful centuries were not as some have painted them, evidence of a failing of religion and faith, but rather they are evidence of the corrupt mixing of political power and the church and the predictable failings of human nature. The persecutions and disenfranchise of Saints also proceeded from the corrupt mixing of political power and religious bigotry. The local and federal government brasenly violated the constitutional rights of members of the church and even appeals to The Supreme Court ended with the court ruling that free exercise of religion only extended to belief and not to action, that adhering in act to ones religious belief was not a protected natural right. Not the first miscarriage of Constitutional interpretation by the court and not the last. Fortunately the government our founders constructed has the ability to correct itself as the people correct their understanding.
In Madison's day he suggested his fellow Virginians "inquire of the teachers of Christianity for the ages in which it appeared in its greatest luster, those of every sect, point to the ages prior to its incorporation with civil society [government being his meaning]." Inquire today, and those of every sect, may point to today. Why is that? I believe it is largely because of what the establishment of our nation has meant for religious freedom and what freedom has meant for the nature of man and thereby the government of the people.
Is that to say that we have reached some religious utopia, some perfect measure of religious freedom? Of course not. In fact, our society continues to struggle as an ever increasing number of citizens interpret the Constitution and our history in such a way as to justify the obliteration of God from the public square and public discourse. We may be witnessing a radical swing from freedom of religion to freedom from religion; which is destroying the moral pinning of our Founding documents and law.
To preserve the progress made in the great American Experiment to establish religious freedom and encourage religious tolerance we must be true to that unique American relationship with limited government and encouraged moral law. In order to do this citizens must accept these fundamental truths.
1) That human beings have always, and will always be capable of great good and great evil. Therefore, religious discord and persecution are not a reflection on God or the doctrines of religion but human imperfection.
2) Government is not capable of eliminating religious discord among people without an iron fist and "torrents of bloodshed." No government is free from abuse and the greater the power of that government the greater the abuse.
3) Because of 1 and 2, history will always contain chapters of deep regret and the best hope for mankind is to limit the power of government and as a people willingly adhere to moral law and govern ourselves by religious tenants. In wisdom Joseph Smith described the governance of his people this way, "I teach them good principles and they govern themselves."
When these truths are understood, the pursuit is no longer to find or create an unattainable utopia, but to ascertain what form of civil society is best suited to establish and preserve religious freedom. What we learn from history is that freedom of religion, equality under the law, and a moral people has the greatest power to produce "a more perfect union" and peace among religious sects. Madison believed, "the American Theater has exhibited proofs that equal and complete liberty, if it does not wholly eradicate [religious discord], sufficiently destroys its malignant influence."
The Saints were strengthened by their deeply rooted religious belief that the Constitution of the United States was divinely inspired, that the founding of this nation was pivotal in God's plan for the restoration of the Gospel of Christ, and that God had a grand design for the destiny of this nation and their church; a destiny that was inextricably linked in freedom. As they endured the persecution of mobs and injustice of law they did so in patience and with faith that the future was bright and God was in control. There experience did not dampen their optimism and support for Constitutional law and the reverence they held for its founding.
Unfortunately, many of our children educated in public schools today, receive an oppressively negative view of American history that often leaves them unable to see the extraordinary good of their country and the critical role that religion played in establishing and maintaining the greatest nation on earth. They are persuaded to believe that a more powerful government and less religion overall is the key to peace and tolerance. It is further damaging that the evil episodes in our history are emphasized while the extraordinary good is either omitted or misinterpreted as evil. This insufficient and sometimes false historical context builds an idea of religion as the enemy to the civil society, rather than understanding that the enemy is the corrupting nature of political power and the unbridled carnal nature of men.