The Experiment

May 18, 2009
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Religious persecution is no phenomenon to mankind. In fact, theistic discrimination can be traced back to the Egyptian enslavement of the Jews, Paul’s oppression of Christians, Constantine’s coercive Christianity, and the Crusades. Great African American theologian James Cone contends that a man is free only “when he sees for himself what he is and not as others define him.” Likewise, true religious freedom can only exist among a people willing to accept difference and allow this difference to coexist. However, most religions tend to ‘define’ right and wrong and are not tolerable of any different beliefs or compromise, feeling justified by their conviction that a ‘divine power’ has revealed to them an absolute, inexorable truth. Such is the paradox of religious freedom in a democracy; therefore, given such religious ideas, religious freedom of this sort and democracy are simply incompatible. To some extent, the United States has risen above the fallacy undercutting religious toleration; nevertheless, the ‘experiment’ is still underway. Former President George Washington idealizes a people that indulge in another’s exercise of “inherent natural rights”—of which religious freedom is one. But America is yet to fully live up to this dream. Even while he spoke those very words, the majority religion within each respective sphere of the colonies actively engaged in imposing their beliefs on the minority. Thus, religious freedom is a process of trial and error, an experiment that must be continued and refined. It began in the ‘radical’ perceptions of a few founding fathers and continues now in a modern day society bombarded with the fight for gay rights, the ethics of stem cell research, and the election of an African American President.



A common misconception exists pertaining to the motives behind the Puritan’s voyage to the New World: the quest for freedom of religion. Realistically, though, they sought to worship freely in their own way. What, then, is the significant difference? The Puritans did not risk their lives in that perilous journey across the sea so that everyone could be free, but rather so that they could be free. They perceived the religious doctrines of the Old World to be corrupt and felt that only they held the key to ‘purifying’ such false teachings. Thus, theirs was not a search for toleration, but for purification. Religious freedom would find no sanction in their colony, for they did not feel the need to allow other ‘false’ beliefs to corrupt their ‘purity.’ Consequently, people such as Anne Hutchinson and William Penn became the persecuted and the Puritans, the persecutors. Evidently, the noble experiment in this era was failing. America had simply swapped one oppressor for another. Furthermore, the Salem Witchcraft Trials confirms that hypocrisy breeds corruption, which in turn leads to destruction—or in this case, the fall of the theocracy and the rise of a secular government.



It is not until the revolutionary age and thereafter that freedom and equality become all the rage in America. Thus, in the historical context of President Washington’s letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Rhode Island, the experiment had made drastic progress from that of the 17th century. The world of the 18th century sat back and watched as the newest nation pioneered what no other veteran nation dared investigate—religious tolerance and secular government. Washington was keenly aware of the lurking dangers behind allowing a dominant religious sect to control a society and suppress others’ rights. Therefore, in his reflection upon the remembrance of a sweet victory of freedom, he indirectly challenges Americans to bask in their accomplishments and continue to uphold the example of an “enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worth imitation.”

American democracy, then, is an ongoing experiment. As our understanding of religious freedom continues to mature alongside our development of a democracy, we reach higher heights than that of our forefathers and therefore understand this complexity much better. Be that as it may, we have progressed towards meeting the goals of Washington’s address to the Hebrew Congregation hundreds of years earlier, we still have not perfected what he denoted the “way of everlasting happiness” for all. Although the state constitutes a marriage, it is owned by religion, which dictates that same sex marriage is immoral and thus prohibited. The groundbreaking stem cell research is tormented by the ethics surrounding and impeding science and the rumor circulating concerning Barack Obama’s possible ties to a Muslim religion tainted his otherwise pristine political image. America is still lacking the true religious freedom for which Washington yearned; therefore, it is imperative that even at this rate we remain vigilant and open-minded. The problems posed by religious diversity have only multiplied since the few active religions of our experiment’s childhood years have morphed into a wide variety of present-day culture. Religious freedom can either remain an important incentive for democracy or pose a deadly threat to society. The experiment continues.





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brina said...
Jun. 5, 2009 at 5:21 pm
very interesting article I looked at this because im a christian myself
 
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