pilgrim forebears came to America in 1620 for freedom of religion. They sought
the ability to worship and believe according to their conscience. They were
Separatists who fled the England of King James I, who had restricted religious
freedom for those who did not follow his religious ideals, whether Separatists,
Puritans or Catholics.
first, the Pilgrims and others of similar Calvinist leanings emphasized their
own ability to worship as they saw fit and did not accord others the same
right. But Roger Williams’ focus on each individual’s right to their own “Soul
Liberty” took a different view. His perspective was that the problem was not
that the government (e.g., King James) favored the wrong theological view, but
that government favored any theological view at all.
the end, Williams’ idea became the foundation of the United States’ approach to
the relationship between government and religious organizations. The main point
is that there should not be a relationship; according to the First Amendment,
government should pass no laws “respecting an establishment of religion, or
prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
former phrase means that laws cannot give some religious group more rights than
other groups, while the latter phrase indicates that laws cannot give some
religious groups or individuals fewer rights than other religious groups. To
the extent possible, government should pass no laws concerning religions.
this principle has not been followed 100 percent, the United States probably has
fewer laws about religion and less government involvement in regulating
religious organizations than any other country.
hands-off government approach has placed America’s religions in a free-for-all
marketplace. Varieties of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Paganism and
many other religions jostle each other to find a niche or establish their place
in the religious scene.
religious marketplace is quite capitalist in character. Some religious
organizations compete at the top of the marketplace. Like a company seeking
higher sales, they work to attract more members. Like advertisers, they loudly
broadcast their views for all to see. Whether they are a large organization,
like the Catholic Church, or a small group, like the followers of the anti-gay
Fred Phelps, they compete for media attention to get their word out.
religious organizations participate in the market by finding a quiet niche.
They do not want a big public presence, but simply wish to practice their faith
and be left alone. And, of course, there are many approaches in between.
in this religious marketplace occurs in many forms, from blatant advertising on
the sides of buses to announcing meeting times on the Saturday newspaper
“church page.” There are parades, social outreach through missions and soup
kitchens, sponsorship of Boy Scouts and, especially, the erection of prominent
buildings. Churches and their steeples have dominated the skylines and central
squares of towns and villages for centuries.
capitalistic nature of this competition does not prevent different religious
groups from using non-capitalistic means to gain an edge. Recently, the quest
has been to allow religious groups or individuals to deprive others of their
rights. In particular, the present social debate over freedom of religion is
the claim that one person’s right to believe as they wish includes the right to
deprive others of their rights.
is the claim of the Hobby Lobby case presently before the Supreme Court and the
goal of laws recently passed in Arizona (where it was vetoed) and in
Mississippi that allow businesses to discriminate on the basis of belief.
capitalist character of America’s religious marketplace, then, is so free and
open that nothing prevents religious groups from using non-capitalist means to
try to make it less free and less equal for some. Success in this quest will
eventually make religious belief and practice less free for everyone.