Religious bigotry takes many forms and oftentimes becomes more manifest with followers as they adhere more resolutely to their own particular faith.
It stems from the devotee’s sureness that they hold the correct belief and that those who do not are necessarily wrong.
Prejudice from the pulpit is nothing new in the United States, although in the post-9/11 era of polarized, nonsecular politics it may seem more endemic.
But in actuality it lies at the very foundation of our nation as immigration patterns based on religious tribalism gave rise to the individual colonies and their particular socioeconomic customs and laws.
Puritans and Congregationalists populated New England, middle colonialists included Catholics and Jews, while southerners were largely Baptist with a preponderance of Anglicans in Virginia.
Proximity would oftentimes create competition, as was the case with the Quakers and Presbyterians in Pennsylvania and the mid-Atlantic region.
The whole notion of religious intolerance vexed the Founders who were adherents of the intellectual reason associated with the American Enlightenment.
The fact that colonialists effectively worshiped the same God yet narrowed their mindset to parsed interpretations and nuanced differences of their practices seemed to more closely approximate obscurantism than the path to the greater good.
“On the dogmas of religion as distinguished from moral principles, all mankind, from the beginning of the world to this day, have been quarreling, fighting, burning and torturing one another, for abstractions unintelligible to themselves and to all others,” Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1816.
Yet despite religious differences among and within the colonies, the American Revolutionary War was underpinned by an evangelical fervor that helped galvanize the broader cause of overcoming a tyrannical monarchy in favor of the freedom of self-rule and inherent rights.
George Washington in particular recognized that personal religious convictions were a pillar of strength among his troops and that nondenominational entreaties to Providence helped form cohesion, especially in the darkest days.
And with the success of the War of Independence came a groundswell of optimism across the former colonies centered on the unique opportunity for the people to form a new nation and government that could at once protect but also transcend religious differences.
The so-called “grand absorbing theme” of religious life in America had arisen centered on one nation endowed by the Creator whose collective rights and ideals would be codified in the United States Constitution.
There was great exuberance that transformed disparate and provincial colonialists into connected citizenry linked together into a new national identity based on American verities of equality, fairness, legal justice and duty.
There was also a collective awareness of, and high expectations for, American destiny centered on assuming the mantle of leadership among the nations of the world, a new “chosen people — the Israel of our time” as Herman Melville would later write.
The hallmark of this new body politic was the ascension of the American Creed that went beyond individual freedoms to exalt the nation’s strength in unity as celebrated in our national mottos and symbolism of the Great Seal of the United States:
E Pluribus Unum (One from many).
Annuit Cœptis (God has favored our undertakings).
Novus Ordo Seclorum (New order of the ages).
With the passing of the era, the young nation would cycle through economic and political discord, yet the legacy of that sanguine period would endure as would its secular ideals and constitutional values.
At the onset of the Civil War, President-elect Abraham Lincoln would invoke the unity of the age and “great promise to all the people of the world to all time to come” but lament how the nation had become God’s “almost chosen people.”
Yet through the lowest point of despair the Union would endure.
Great challenges would follow with the Reconstruction Era, World War I, Great Depression, World War II, Civil Rights Movement, and Vietnam with racial strife ebbing and flowing through it all.
And when our houses of worship failed to bind up the nation’s wounds and even sowed divisiveness among our people, the great secular values of equality, liberty, legal justice and, yes, free exercise of religion, as embodied in our Constitution helped sustain us.
Our era is no different, for when seemly every day in Washington and everywhere on the Sabbath dogmatists seek to divide us, the ideals behind our American Creed endure.
After all, our country truly ‘tis of thee.