Wednesday, May 16, 2012

From Puritanism To Secularism

[Note: This was originally going to be just an observation about my Puritan ancestors and free will, but quickly segued into an essay on the First Amendment.]

I’ve been researching my family history and have been quite interested in learning about their cultural mores and the manner in which their faith was manifested in everyday life.

I’m thinking specifically about the Puritan view of the citizens’ obligations to the church. A Puritan’s behavior was, to some degree, prescribed by the church. I’ve been going back and forth with how I feel about that.

On one hand, I sometimes think that was a great system. When we look at today’s culture and how corrupt and selfish and evil it is, and compare it to then, when people did what was right or were punished, it just seems that they had a better system.

On the other hand, it seems to fly directly in the face of God’s obvious desire for us to have and use free will. When one begins to learn about Him, it becomes very obvious very quickly that His system is one where we all have free will. He wants us to come to him and to do what’s right on our own accord.

So, in an ironic way (and this is speculation on my part), in wanting to please God, the Puritans’ society of enforced righteousness (for lack of a better way to word it) actually may have displeased Him.

Before we start going off on how great it is to have a separation of church and state, though, we need to put into perspective how this came into being, and how it subsequently evolved, because there is much misinformation on this subject.

In a way, it was, in fact, the Puritans who had the first version of separation of church and state, but it was completely different than anything we would recognize today. It would be more accurate to describe it as a separation of church and civil authorities - hopefully the distinction will become clear shortly.

Remember, they left a system where the monarch was the head of the church (as it still is to this day in England) and ruled, ostensibly, by divine right.

So, basically, the civil authority was also the church authority, and in that order. Well, the monarch changed several times over a relatively short period resulting in varying degrees of secular and pious sensibilities - not to mention church doctrine.

To the Puritan mind this was completely backward - especially if the king or queen ruled by divine right! The monarch serves God and the priority should be as spiritual leader first, which would result in being the civil or governmental leader.

When they came to the new world, that’s how they set up their system. The citizens had to meet certain religious expectations and obligations, and the pastors were more or less the leaders of the community. The only authority the civil leaders had was that which was purely civil in nature. They were not to step on the toes of the church. (Although the church would use the civil government to punish religious infractions - yet more evidence of who was truly in charge.)

Another difference from the Church of England was that there was no “national” church. It was the local church that had authority - and responsibility - over its own congregation. Of course, most, if not all, of the churches were on the same page, as we would say today, but one could not stop going to one church in favor of another, for example, without going through a formal process.

Having protested the legalism of the Catholic Church, and having separated from the monarch-ruled Church of England, these Protestant Separatists* nevertheless became quite legalistic in their own right, and more or less ruled the state - but it really was quite different in the details from what they’d left behind. That said, they were a far cry from allowing the reign of free will that God arguably intended.

This talk of free will, or the lack of it, gets pretty complex, though, because they insisted that church members be saved Christians and not just go though the motions of going to church because it was mandated, as was the case in England. The people were, however, fairly homogenous in their belief and way of thinking - they were there, in the new world, together, for a reason, after all. So there was a mixture of free will and legalism that most of us today would probably not understand.

The next step in the evolution of the separation of church and state was initiated by Roger Williams in direct response to the situation described above. Williams was critical of the Puritans’ “structure” much like Luther was with the Catholic one.

Roger Williams established the first Baptist church in America, in what became Providence, RI.

Today, because fundamentalist Baptists are often at the forefront of the battle (on the side of allowing prayer in school and other public/government places), many people think they are against a separation of church and state. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Baptists are staunch advocates of it - it’s just that they understand and agree with the original meaning of it (a la Roger Williams), and not what it has been perverted into.

There were a number of differences that Williams had with the Puritan-run Bay Colony, but two that are specific to this issue were: being punished by civil authorities for purely religious transgressions, and the requirement of being spiritually saved in order to have the right to vote.

Williams felt that one man has no way of ascertaining the salvation of another, so the requirement was ridiculous. Being granted or denied the right to vote therefore became arbitrary, and that wasn’t right.

Providence thus became a haven of religious tolerance - perhaps like the world had never seen.

It must be remembered that this was 140 years before the colonies would form into a new nation, so this religious freedom was well established by the time the framing of the new government was to begin.

It was with all this in mind that our founding fathers found it wise (indeed, necessary) to include in the Bill of Rights the First Amendment, specifically prohibiting the establishment of a state religion.

They wanted to be sure that no religion would become the officially sanctioned religion of the government - like was the case in most of Europe - thereby preventing the freedom of worship to others.

It was absolutely not to prohibit the exercise of religion in the public square. Quite the contrary: it was to guarantee that all had the freedom to worship according to their own convictions without fear.

Sadly, the most frequent (erroneous) interpretation of the First Amendment has accomplished precisely what it sought to protect us from.

One definition of religion is: a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith. That accurately describes the Secular Humanism under which our government operates.

So, in changing the meaning of the First Amendment from the clear idea of protecting religious freedom by not establishing a state religion to the false idea of completely divorcing faith from public life, the courts have, in effect, used the First Amendment to establish in the land Secular Humanism as the state mandated religion!

*Not all Puritans were technically Separatists, but that’s a fairly involved explanation. I was exercising a bit of license with that line.


  1. Maybe if people like you keep saying what the first amendment really means it will catch on. Good reflection Walt.

  2. Agreed. I posted a status on facebook that tied the freedom of religion to freedom of speech. Essentially, I made the observation that the latter was essential to the former. And the sparks flew... Laurie