“Religious Freedom” Laws and a Longstanding Battle within American Christianity

RFRA Protests in IndianapolisRFRA Protests in Indianapolis, March 28, 2015 (Photo: Justin Eagan Wikimedia Commons)

In the wake of Indiana’s passage of its controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act, much of the national debate has focused on the conflicts between American Christianity and other national ideals such as the separation of church and state, equal protection under the law, and diversity and tolerance. But even if we table those latter discussions, as well as arguments about just how Christian are the attitudes such laws are designed to protect, it is important to contextualize the law as part of a longstanding conflict within American Christianity, a battle between more exclusionary and more inclusive visions.

Such conflicts extend all the way back to the Puritan era. Certainly the dominant Puritan perspectives were exclusionary, as was the desire to practice such beliefs that brought the first Puritan settlers to Massachusetts. Yet only a few years after the Mayflower Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth, their English contemporary Thomas Morton founded the colony of Mount Wollaston (later known as Merrymount), which practiced a far more progressive and inclusive Christianity, one for which Morton would argue in his groundbreaking New English Canaan (1637). The Puritans saw Morton and his colony as “heathens” and sought to stamp them out, but those responses themselves reflect the divisions within these alternative, originating American visions of Christianity and religion.

As American Christianity evolved into the 18th century, it came to be associated with another exclusionary image: Puritan minister Jonathan Edwards’s fiery sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741). Yet Edwards’s career and perspective overall, like the 1730s Great Awakening in which he played a pivotal role, were influenced at least as strongly by Reform theology and Enlightenment philosophies as by Puritanism. In works such as A Divine and Supernatural Light, Immediately Imparted to the Soul by the Spirit of God (1734), Edwards and the New Light ministers whom he influenced preached a far more individual and liberated Christianity, one defined by personal grace rather than communal strictures.

Later in the 18th century, no less a founding American than Benjamin Franklin would extend these individual and inclusive religious philosophies. In his Autobiography, Franklin notes, “I never doubted the existence of the Deity; that he made the world, and governed it by his Providence; that the most acceptable service of God was the doing good to man; that our souls are immortal; and that all crime will be punished, and virtue rewarded, either here or hereafter. These I esteemed the essentials of every religion; and, being to be found in all the religions we had in our country, I respected them all, though with different degrees of respect, as I found them more or less mixed with other articles, which, without any tendency to inspire, promote, or confirm morality, served principally to divide us, and make us unfriendly to one another.”

The 19th century witnessed two particularly divisive such applications of American Christianity: its use by supporters of slavery in the antebellum period; and its connection to Gilded Age arguments for social stratification, such as Andrew Carnegie’s idea of a “Gospel of Wealth” in which society’s richest members would use their means to support only those below them they did not classify as “the slothful, the drunken, the unworthy.” Yet this was the same century that saw abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass wed Evangelical Christianity to support for full racial equality, witnessed Methodist minister and Wampanoag William Apess use Scripture to argue for Native American sovereignty, and culminated with Progressive reformer and Evangelical Protestant Henry George linking his religious beliefs to his socialist philosophy in works like Progress and Poverty (1879) and The Condition of Labor (1891).

There are many ways to oppose laws such as Indiana’s, to define them indeed as antithetical to American values and ideals. Yet in doing so, we must be careful not to implicitly or explicitly align these exclusionary laws and attitudes with American Christianity – not without recognizing the threads of inclusion and equality that have been equally consistent and significant throughout our religious histories, and remain vibrant and vital today.

About the Author

Ben Railton

Ben Railton is Associate Professor of English and Coordinator of American Studies at Fitchburg State University. He's working to create public American Studies scholarship and to impact our collective memories and narratives, as evidenced by his books (most recently The Chinese Exclusion Act: What It Can Teach Us about America), his daily AmericanStudies blog, and many other ongoing projects.

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