Madeleine Albright–Reflections on Religious Diversity in Colonial North America

A good place to start a discussion of Madeleine Albright’s book, The Mighty and the Almighty, is at the beginning.  For purposes of this post, a better place to start is page 16, page 44 in my e-book.  Here she begins her exploration of the religious differences of the earliest colonies.  This precedes  her exploration of the role of faith in the formation of our nation, the United States of America.  While much of my commentary is based directly on The Mighty and the Almighty, I explored some of her references to understand a little more indepth (I know, it is only a post!) the issues she raised.

Differences in Faith in Colonial America

U.S. History 101 teaches us that the Pilgrims came to the New World to escape persecution in Europe and to build better lives.  Secretary Albright focuses on the way the patterns of that migration, and the related early religious conflicts, impacted the development of the colonies.  It is apparent that the English, Dutch, Spanish, French and other colonists brought with them differing views of religion and that their beliefs, and the conflicts among them concerning their beliefs, helped shape the political landscape then and now.

1) The Puritans arrived in the New World fleeing religious persecution in England.  John Winthrop, Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, left England in hopes of building a community that would be a model for “how to live a righteous life,” “escape God’s judgment on the corrupt churches of Europe” and find a refuge from poverty and overpopulation in England while spreading the gospel.   Despite persecution by Anglicans in England, his Puritan colony determined to exclude from full citizenship in their community all but a select view within their own faith.

2) Roger Williams was a theologian in England. Ordained into the Anglican church, he became a Puritan at Cambridge.  Forced out of England, he settled briefly in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  In 1636 he established Providence Plantation after being banished by the Puritans from Salem/Boston.  His transgression, in the eyes of the leaders of that community, was to oppose taking the lands of Native Americans without compensation and advocating for the separation of church and religious functions. He opposed slavery and advocated for freedom of religion for all groups–Jews, Papists and Mohammedans.  He specifically said about the treatment of Jews elsewhere “for whose hard measure, I fear, the nations and England hath yet a score to pay”.  Like-minded settlers and minority groups, joined him in Rhode Island where they found a safe haven.  (This is important to me because my ancestor, John Lewis, was a founder of Westerly, Rhode Island, formed in 1661.)  Williams is said to have established the first Baptist Congregation in the colonies.  Williams renounced the practice of taking land by force from Native Americans and, instead, entered treaties with them.

3) Reverend Thomas Hooker, a popular Puritan preacher, founded the Hartford Settlement in 1636.  He first came into conflict with other Puritan leaders when he opposed the decision of the Massachusetts Bay Colony to limit voting rights to an elite group within the Puritan faith. He drafted portions of Connecticut’s Constitution which declared the “God given” right of people to pick their own leaders.  On May 31, 1638, he presented a sermon in which he espoused the belief that “the foundation of authority is laid in the free consent of the people” and declared that “God has given us liberty, let us take it.” He also attracted followers who settled portions of Connecticut.

4) William Penn, was born Anglican.  He became a member of the Society of Friends (Quaker) at age 22.  He was imprisoned in England for his beliefs, eventually relocated to the colonies, after authoring a “charter of liberties” for Burlington Settlement in New Jersey. The charter guaranteed free and fair trial by jury, freedom of religion, freedom from unjust imprisonment and free elections. He eventually settled in Pennsylvania Province where he drafted a“Frame of Government” that addressed such rights as freedom of worship, trial by jury, free election, fair trial and fair taxes.  In addition to Quakers, the province attracted Amish, Jews, Huguenots, Mennonites and others. Penn, like Williams, befriended the Native Americans and bought his lands from them rather than taking land by force.

6) While not part of the original 13 colonies, and not a focus of Secretary Albright’s book, Catholics colonized the Southern states and California beginning with the founding of missions in the late 1400s Spanish missionaries and by French traders as early as the late 1600s.  Catholics were also among the founders of Maryland.  Identified as “papists” Catholics were subject to persecution in some colonies until at least the late 1700’s.

There is, of course, far more to this early history than I can presume to understand or to research for my brief summary.  But the ways in which the colonies formed, and the close proximity of these varied and sometimes conflicting religious communities impacted their lives and ours.  The tragedies of their time are truly that–tragedies: the introduction of slavery into the new world, the early wars with native American populations on the East Coast, and the Salem witch trials.  The great successes include, first and foremost, that the colonies became an incubator for the values important to us today: liberty, separation of church and state, freedom of religion and democracy that were nurtured and grew, for over 100 years before the “forging of one nation.”

Next:  From the wisdom of a few men, a great document. The United States Constitution.

Faith and Politics–Views of a Statesman and a Preacher: John Danforth

John Danforth: U.S. Senator, Ambassador, Special Envoy to Syria, attorney and Episcopal Priest.  His preparation for public office was as unique as the man.  He received his undergraduate degree at Princeton. In 1963 he received graduate degrees from Yale Law School and Yale Divinity School.  He is an Episcopal priest and has been so for almost 50 years.  He is recognized as a true statesman and a person of integrity.  A lifelong Republican, he remains widely respected by “both sides of the aisle.”

In a 2009 interview with Michel Martin, host of NPR’s TELL ME MORE, he described his view of the role of religion in public life:  Religious people are going to be involved in government and in politics, and that’s good and I’m one of them.  But I think when you  do it, it’s important to do it with a great degree of humility and recognize that your point of view is not necessarily God’s point of view, it’s just your political point of view.  And that you have to be tolerant of people who don’t agree with you and not just assume that, well these are evil people.  It’s just a difference in opinion.  

In 2006 he authored Faith and Politics-How the “Moral Debate” is Dividing  America and How to Move Forward Together. I first read his book to understand his opinions on such issues as stem cell research, the Terri Schiavo “right to die” case, school prayer, and  Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation proceedings. When I returned to his book, my focus changed to his views on the role of religion in politics.

While Senator Danforth identifies himself as a devout Christian, he rejects the notion that his political positions are God’s positions, and considers the concept very divisive.  He expresses concerns throughout his book about the “takeover” of the Republican Party by the religious right, while supporting the participation of  conservative and liberal Christians in politics.  He continues on to say that the problem is not that Christians are conservative or liberal, but that some are so confident that their position is God’s position that they become dismissive and intolerant toward others and divisive forces in our national life.

He believes that Christianity is supposed to be a ministry of reconciliation, but has become, instead, a divisive force in American political life…something is terribly wrong and we should correct it.  I think there are two aspects to what is wrong: first, our certainty that our political agenda must be God’s agenda, and second, our ineffectiveness in proclaiming the message of reconciliation.   He further states: our attempts to be God’s people in our politics are, at best, good efforts, subject to all the misjudgments and mixed motives that characterize human behavior. We are seekers of the truth, but we do not embody the truth.  And in humility, we should recognize that the same can be said of our most ardent foes.    

Much of Senator Danforth’s focus is general, but he is specific about one element of political life, the character attacks on candidates for governmental positions:  We may never agree on the issues, but we should all agree that in America, the pursuit of a political cause does not warrant the intentional destruction of a fellow human.  

While a primary focus of his book is directed toward Christianity in the political process he rejects the concept that the United States is a “Christian country”.  He  believes that term indicates non-Christians are of some lesser order, not full-fledged citizens of our nation.  He expresses regret about incidents in his life which he considers insensitive to non-Christians participating in two events;  the first at his non-sectarian high school when students, including non-Christians, were expected to sing the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers”, which concludes “God in three persons, blessed trinity”.  The second a prayer he gave at Yale University which he ended with a reference to the Trinity (God the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit).

Senator Danforth does not minimize the risks arising from the polarization of politics. He writes eloquently of why our political dialogue should move to the middle through compromise of extreme conservative and liberal political and religious beliefs.  He condemns what he considers to be the intentional perpetuation of wedge issues, which he says are harmful to the national interest.  He describes the risks of divisive politics based on religion this way: ...religion has the capacity to draw people together.  But it can also be a powerful force that drives people apart. In the Middle East, Iraq, Sudan, the former Yugoslavia and Northern Ireland, and many other places in the world, religion has been so divisive that people have killed one another, believing they were doing the work of God.

If Danforth is right, if no one has a pipeline to God, doesn’t it mean that he is also right that people of good will should seek to respect our differences as we work together for a better world.  If he is wrong, if there are political leaders who understand perfectly the one ultimate truth, how is that truth to be known and accepted?  The ballot box? The battlefield?  Do we try to force each other to adhere to our separate versions of the truth? What if the wrong “truth” wins?

I’m now ready to move on to retired Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright’s book:  The Mighty and the Almighty. Let’s see what she has to say.