John H. Haas: America's Experiment in Religious Liberty a Bold Venture





[John H. Haas is an associate professor of history at Bethel College. He lives in South Bend.]

"While we are contending for our own liberty," wrote George Washington to one of his officers during the Revolution, "we should be very cautious of violating the rights of conscience in others, ever considering that God alone is the judge of the hearts of men, and to him only in this case, they are answerable."

Washington was explaining why he was ordering his troops to cease their practice of burning effigies of the pope. Anti-pope parties were practiced in England and in the American colonies for decades. It was a time when colonists remembered the danger represented by Roman Catholicism, and how grateful they were to have escaped it. "Pope's Day," after all, was celebrated on the anniversary of the thwarted "Gunpowder Plot," when a group of English Catholics tried to blow up Parliament....

Washington's tolerant attitude was unusual. Most Americans believed then (as they would well into the next century) that Catholics were more than an erring, superstitious, frightening church. They believed the Pope was literally the Antichrist spoken about in the Bible, "the man of sin" who, in league with Satan, was intent on destroying God's kingdom. America, with its religious liberties and its open voting policies, was a sitting duck ripe for the taking by the Pope's minions....

America's experiment in religious liberty is a bold, difficult venture. It's never been easy, and it is not without risk. We've been tempted many times to go back, to find some easier, safer course. So far, we've stuck with it, and we're a better nation, more worthy of our pride, and envied throughout the world, because we have.

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