say you’re from the greatest land.
Right or wrong, they teach you the song
of your people.”
Angie Aparo, from “Child, You’re the Revolution”
The myth of American origins taught in grade schools includes pilgrims seeking “religious freedom.” In the textbook stories, these heroic European ancestors sail across the ocean to escape persecution. They risk life and limb to find a place where they will be free to practice their beliefs without the interference of the state or the heavy hand of the Church of England.
High school students read “The Scarlet Letter” and some of them begin to connect the dots: The pilgrims did not come to America to be free of religious persecution, but to be in charge of it. They very much wanted to live in a society governed by religious authority — theirs, to be exact. They came to Virginia not directly from England but from Holland, where Protestant Christians had long been free to worship as they pleased. Holland did not suit these English Separatists, perhaps because they could not control their neighbors, who were entirely too Dutch.
In America, the Separatists created a society in which a person could be severely whipped for denying the scriptures. Settlers could be fined for missing church, working on Sunday, or harboring a Quaker. Ultimately, this kind of thinking led to the travesty we know today as the Salem Witch Trials. More than 150 people were imprisoned for allegedly making pacts with the devil. Twenty were executed and several more died in jail. Connecticut experienced its own witch trials, and several other places from Virginia to New Mexico executed at least one alleged witch.
Regions where church and state were less conjoined escaped the madness unscathed. William Penn, the devout Quaker who founded Pennsylvania, asked accused witches if they flew on broomsticks at night. Weary from interrogation, the women said yes. Penn replied that he could find no law on the Pennsylvania books that prohibited flying on broomsticks.
As terrible as the witch trials were, the phenomenon may have contributed to the American concern of keeping church and state separate. The hysteria of the 1600s yielded to the relative sanity of the late 1700s. James Madison, who wrote much of the United States Constitution, cited Martin Luther’s doctrine of two kingdoms (eternal and temporal) to support the wall of separation. He wrote to a minister friend, “A mutual independence [between religious and civil polity] is found most friendly to practical Religion, to social harmony, and to political prosperity.”
Lately some people have forgotten why this separation is essential to American freedom. Like the Pilgrims, they do not seek religious liberty so much as religious dominance. Not content with the freedom to live out their own convictions, they want to force them on others. They pound their Bibles and state that the United States is a Christian nation. Since the U.S. has never had any state religion, the question remains, which Christianity?
Roman Catholicism remains the largest Christian denomination in the United States, and it is growing due to immigration. A hundred years ago, one out of six Americans professed to be Catholic. Today that number exceeds one out of five. With Catholicism growing and many Protestant denominations shrinking, those who clamor for prayer in school should prepare their children to venerate the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Jeannie Babb is a Ringgold native. You can find her on FaceBook or pedaling a neon green bike through the Sewanee fog to the School of Theology, black academic gown billowing behind like a sail. Send email to email@example.com.