Session 1: Defining Religious Liberty

As we begin our consideration of this topic, we’ll look at the history and formation of the concept of religious liberty and explore the harm that can result when religious liberty is misapplied.

Reflection: What is Religious Liberty?

white New England churchReligious Liberty sounds like a positive concept. Religion has created good in the lives of many people and who doesn’t love liberty? However, these good sounding words have taken on a different meaning in our contemporary age.

Religious Liberty was at the core of this new nation in the early 1600’s. The Pilgrims and Puritans were willing to venture to a new world in part to establish their own independence from the Church of England. They desired to worship their God free from persecution, which they felt was worth the risks of their transatlantic voyage. Unlike our contemporary American culture where people have the freedom to attend one church, and then find another or not attend church at all, the freedom of religion of the early settlers was not as casual. It held more weight for them. One does not travel across an ocean simply because you want to attend another church. The freedom to practice their religion was equated to finding their lives, despite facing religious intolerance in the New England colonies.

Central to the Pilgrim and Puritan worldview was their sense of their religious and moral authority. They believed their new land was their spiritual inheritance as God’s chosen people. The Puritans, in particular, saw themselves as superior because they believed that they had been selected to “purify” Christ’s church. Both groups asserted themselves as knowing what was best for the masses. What started out as providing moral guidelines for the Colonial settlers, the Pilgrims and Puritans soon began an oppressive religious system of conformity. They began to practice a theocracy (a government based upon religious principles and authority) which they felt gave them in a moral superiority. Those who did not conform to their way of living were met with persecution. It is an unfortunate situation when the oppressed become the oppressors.