The King of England, James I (19 June 1566 – 27 March 1625) – the same fellow who sponsored the Bible named after him – established the Colony of Virginia with a religious charter in 1606, ordaining that “propagating of Christian Religion to such People, as yet live in Darkness and miserable Ignorance of the true Knowledge and Worship of God,” was paramount, and expressing hope that his efforts “may in time bring the Infidels and Savages, living in those parts, to human Civility, and to a settled and quiet Government.”
Those words are those of an English king and an endorsement of Jacobean state-sponsored religion – to be specific, Anglican religion. Not Catholic, not Puritan, but post-Henry VIII Church of England Christianity. James had no use for the Puritans who flooded to the New World beginning in 1628, and they had no use for the “Papish” Church of England with all its “pagan” trappings. Neither of them had any use for Jews. And if the Puritans hoped to escape James and his state-sponsored religion, they had no problem establishing their own state-sponsored religion in the New World, one which treated Catholics and Jews like they themselves had been treated – as second class citizens – or worse.
This was state-sponsored religion in the New World in the seventeenth century.
Significantly, the words of James I do not appear in the Declaration of Independence, nor do they appear in the Constitution nor in the Bill of Rights.
It is all too easy to assume that because the first Europeans in the New World were Christians of one sort – Anglican, Puritan, Catholic in the Spanish, French, and Portuguese colonies – that America the country, not the continent but the country, was founded by and for Christians. This is untrue. Virginia was founded by and for Christians – but only one king – Anglican. The Plymouth colony was founed by and for Christians – of one kind – Puritan, and so forth.
But again significantly, none of these colonies were the United States of America. The United States of America was founded free of an established religion and the Constitution’s First Amendment forbids establishing of state religion.
It is difficult to see from these beginnings how the idea that the United States of America was founded by and for Christians, since at the times those colonies were established with such intent, the United States of America was still two-and-a-half centuries in the future, not even lurking in the most far-sighted colonist’s dreams.
But all these facts, and all this history, despite being a permanent part of the historical record, seems lost or conveniently misplaced by America’s fundamentalist Christians. They imagine a country that never existed and yearn to return to that something which never existed. And in their imaginings, all those distinctions – Anglican, Puritan, Catholic, Jew – all disappear. It is imagined that some sort of monolithic Christianity also existed. But like that Christian America, that monolithic Christianity is a myth.
They hated each other. They outlawed each other. They were incredibly intolerant of each other. If some sort of return was made to what did exist, each Christian group would have to outlaw the other and banish dissenters and heretics from their midst. That is the reality of “Christian America.” If, as some Republicans today argue, each locale be free to establish its own religion, we could return to that again, with different religions flourishing in different states.
The punishments were draconian: Quakers Alice Ambrose, Mary Tomkins and Ann Coleman, Quakers, were stripped naked from the waist up in front of a crowd, tied to a cart and then whipped while the Puritan priest watched and laughed. Another woman, Mary Dyer was hung. There was nothing unusual in their treatment: they worshipped “God” in the wrong way. Creating the Kingdom of God on earth was a cruel and bloody business. And it didn’t work.
Despite the best efforts of these early Christofascists, America became increasingly religiously diverse. Baptists came, Presbyterians, French Huguenots (including ancestors of mine on my father’s side). Among the Puritans, in the 1630s some 70 to 80 percent of the taxpayers were church members but by the 1670s the number was half that and in Salem only about 30 percent belonged to a church by 1690.
That’s not to say these draconian laws did not remain in place for far longer. Thomas Jefferson was still complaining about them in the 18th century:
By our own act of Assembly of 1705, c. 30, if a person brought up in the Christian religion denies the being of God, or the Trinity, or asserts there are more gods than one, or denies the Christian religion to be true, or the Scriptures to be of divine authority, he is punishable on the first offense by incapacity to hold any office or employment, ecclesiastical, civil, or military; on the second, by disability to sue, to take any gift or legacy, to be guardian, executor, or administrator, and by three years’ imprisonment without bail. A fathers right to the custody of his own children being founded in law on his right of guardianship, this being taken away, they may of course be severed from him, and put by the authority of the court, into more orthodox hands. This is a summary view of that religious slavery under which a people have been willing to remain, who have lavished their lives and fortunes for the establishment of civil freedom.
You will notice as a result in the Declaration of Independence no mention is made of any religion or denomination, no mention of Jesus or of the Holy Spirit, or of the Ten Commandments or even of the Bible, and the Constitution is equally free of this language. This not only no compunction to worship or believe in specific things, but the Constitution outright forbids any religion test for office. You can believe anything or nothing and be eligible for public office. The United States was manifestly and demonstrably founded to be a secular government.
That is not to say that people in that government were not themselves Christians. Most Americans were. But even America’s Evangelicals supported the First Amendment and they supported Thomas Jefferson, whom they saw as an infidel, because they recognized that he was right to keep the government and religion out of each other’s business.
This is the background to America’s religious fundamentalism: a pre-national, foreign-government-controlled religion imposed on the colonists or imposed by colonists on each other and others. And all of this would be done away with when the United States of America was established, guaranteeing a change: religious freedom for all.
Then along came the modern nightmare of Christofascism to darken the skies of North America again, committing the cardinal sin of confusing these early events with the events of two-and-a-half centuries later. But a foreign colony with state sponsored religion does not an independent nation with freedom of religion make. It is, however, exactly what the revisionists of the School of Christofascism want you to believe.
But Christofascists take not: this ain’t our first rodeo. And I’ll be back with a series of articles detailing the rise of American Christofascism, otherwise lovingly known as fundamentalism.