While reading your previous entry, one of your comments sent me down a question-filled path of thought. It was while you were discussing your points on religion. You stated that the Founding Fathers had an “intolerance for intolerance,” which I agree – with both your point and the Founders’ sentiment. While I, like you, may not actively hold a religious belief, I can appreciate the tolerance of diverse spirituality that is afforded the citizens of the United States. Thankfully, the right to praise your own god(s) is one of the few Constitutional freedoms that hasn’t been eroded, or morphed, by the river of time – or sliced by the pendulum of bureaucracy.
Upon thinking about America’s freedom of religion, I started to wonder: why did the Founders see freedom of religion as such an essential right? After all, it’s right there in Amendment I of the Constitution. It’s on the same level as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right to protest. Was it a strategic maneuver to include it? Was it an olive branch to the more religious Founders? Were the Founders just hooked on the concept of freedom for all? If that was the case, what about slavery, rights for women, voting rights for non-land owners?
My first thought was that it might have been done to distinguish the United States from England. Freedom of religion could be used to starkly separate the two opposing countries. Where England was a land of government-enforced religious oppression, America would then become a bastion of free religion and tolerance. A similar strategy was adopted by the United States during the Cold War. Since the USSR was a godless land of Marx worship, then America became God’s shining city upon a hill. We even started mentioning God in our Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, and he’s stuck around ever since.
As you said, it could just be their “intolerance for intolerance.” However, the fact that it’s in the very first amendment would seem to denote that it was of higher importance. Although, that importance seems to have fallen by the wayside over time. If I were to ask any classmate of mine what the first amendment guarantees, odds are that they would say freedom of speech. So, what did the Founders see that we don’t?
It could have been their experiences under the strict rule of the Church of England. While the right to exercise religion freely may be taken for granted today, the Founders knew what it was like to be oppressed for their beliefs. Their beliefs, by the way, not being wholly Christian, as some were Desist, some were Christian, and several were most likely atheist. Perhaps my modern perspective is causing the answer to allude me. After all, religion was once of higher importance in the mundane moment to moment of each day. Including it could have just been the thing to do, but – from all I know – the Founders always had a logical reason for everything.