Editorial Opinon Content
American religious freedoms enjoy protection under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. The founding fathers knew well that society does not thrive when forced to follow the sole expression of a dictatorial leader.
The Constitution’s authors, therefore, abhorred religious suppression at the hand of self-centered leaders. The history of England and the chaos that arose when totalitarian monarchs policed religion were fresh on their minds. A glance at a section of England’s history sets a backdrop for an appreciation of our religious freedoms.
In 1527, the Pope denied King Henry VIII’s divorce from his wife, Catherine of Aragon. Desperate to dispose of his queen legitimately before God, he put his best scholars to work to find in Canon Law and Scripture reasons to justify his divorce. The Pope did not agree with his findings. So, Henry, unmoved, held to the evidence of his minions and broke from the Roman Catholic Church, establishing himself as the head of The Church of England.
Henry was a Catholic by belief. Yet, his desire to be independent of Rome allowed Puritans and Reformers latitude to influence church polity. Puritans wanted to purify the church. Similarly, Reformers wanted to reform it. Such influences could have previously been punishable by death.
Kings and Queens, Henry’s predecessors, staunchly held either to Catholicism or to reforming the Church of England. These Monarchs silenced, persecuted and even killed those who held differing opinions. Typically, such dissenters experienced the edge of the sword or faced being burned at the stake leaving a bloody mess in their wake.
One of the more troubling outcomes of religious intolerance in England’s history came during the reign of Charles II. He was an immoral King disposed to pleasure instead of piety. He despised the moral stance of the Puritans. He and others began persecuting them. With a few strokes of a quill, Charles enacted a law that prohibited Puritans from being pastors in the church, from pursuing higher learning (barring them from Cambridge and Oxford) and from assembling in mass.
Within a generation, ordinary people nearly forgot the Puritan name. Instead of enduring blood baths, Puritans were kept from influencing society, and their ideas faced extinction. It is no coincidence that the Constitution’s First Amendment addresses the exact abuses the Puritans endured.
The First Amendment protects citizens from being coerced or threatened to either accept or abandon beliefs. As good stewards, citizens should act within the democratic process to ensure religious liberties, and all liberties, are preserved for the next generation.