Friday, December 17, 2010

How the U.S. can be so religiously intolerant despite being for freedom of explanation

Basically, it's because "Freedom of Religion" was understood for most of our history in a way that was only superficially true. The U.S. has had ups and downs regarding freedom of religion, but I would argue that freedom of religion for most people in the 18th and into the 19th century really referred to freedom of people to belong to Protestant Christian denominations, and freedom of religion was considered to be a success if a community tolerated a diversity of these denominations. Catholicism, in particular, was something frequently left out of the idea of freedom of religion, because Catholicism was seen to be the enemy of freedom, specifically the enemy of Protestant Christian sects. Other, more exotic, types of religion were not even considered. Freedom to not believe in any religion was, and has I would argue, been tolerated because the people who have frequently been atheists and agnostics have come from Protestant Christian backgrounds, have been ethnically similar to the dominant groups in the community, and so have posed less of a threat than Catholics, Muslims, or Jews.

In fact, up until fairly recently, maybe in the last 15 years, it would not have been uncommon to go into a small town in a more conservative area of the country, ask about freedom of religion, and be told that "Sure! we have lots of freedom of religion here! Just look at all the different churches we have--Methodists, Baptists, Pentecostal, Presbyterian....even Catholic!" ignoring the fact that the majority of these churches are really very similar sets of beliefs within one subsection of a bigger religion, that is they're all variants on Protestant Christianity, meaning they're basically the same when compared to, say, Hinduism.

Because toleration has in practice mostly referred to Protestant denominations of Christianity, there's really no contradiction between people having an ultra-religious, almost theocratic, interpretation of the world in the United States and at the same time professing to believe in freedom of religion.

I would guess that the model immigrants for America in the days after the Revolution seem to have been white, Germanic, Scandinavian, or British, Protestant dissenters of some kind, cheerful Mennonites and Amish, as opposed to dirty Irish Catholics.

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