Land of the Free, Home of the Believers

Published 11:32 am Monday, November 28, 2016

by Joseph Cotto

For many, myself included, personal religion is a very touchy subject.

For instance, at a dinner party, it is not merely something that I dislike bringing up, but strive to avoid.

This is because, since childhood, I have witnessed the way many people tend to manipulate religion’s invariably political arm – congregations — for the sake of social rather than spiritual capital.

Indeed, a substantial number treat whichever house of worship they choose to attend as a sorority rather than a portal to the divine. However, while I might be able to sneak my way out of discussing religion with family, friends, or acquaintances, what I cannot do is work my way around it when studying the history of the United States.

It is an undeniable fact that religion played an essential, if not pivotal, role in the founding of this nation. From the day that Juan Ponce de Leon’s crew of Spanish explorers set foot on the stretch of marshland now called St. Augustine, religion has been here to stay.

Of course, Ponce de Leon’s native predecessors had religions of their own which were widely practiced across the fruited plains. However, in terms of understanding the influence of religion on contemporary American society, the first domino fell with the force of the Spanish empire’s state-enforced Roman Catholicism. When the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock over a century later, Protestantism was introduced to what became the Massachusetts colony.

Both groups viciously persecuted dissenters and nonbelievers.

The Spaniards slaughtered French Huguenots living in present-day Jacksonville. While the conquistadors’ true aim was eliminating competitors for political power, they rationalized their actions by ‘ensuring the glory of God’ via massacring men, women, and children who rejected ‘God’s one, true church’. ‘Heretics’ within the Spaniard community would also be dealt with severely.

The Pilgrims’ plan of attack was somewhat different. They allowed others with divergent religious beliefs to coexist on the same continent — though such people were not welcome to live in Pilgrim communities. However, among the Pilgrims, those perceived as engaging in ‘sinful’ behavior could find themselves subject to capital punishment. The Salem witch trials are the starkest examples of this.

Thankfully, our nation’s founders eagerly learned from the mistakes of years gone by.       

In December 1791, the Bill of Rights — including the First Amendment — was added to the Constitution. The First expressly prohibited the establishment of a government-sponsored religion, allowing those of widely varying theistic backgrounds to live with an unparalleled degree of liberty.

Today, there is no set number of religions in America. Of course, certain religions have attracted a greater number of followers than others, and others have low membership but high cultural impact.

The United States’s rich heritage of religious liberty is something that can only be described as groundbreaking. The founders’ use of various Enlightenment philosophies to achieve this end is well worth learning from today.

By embracing the mind as opposed to the gut, proactive strategies may be taken to allay problems before they fully present themselves. Considering the alternative, which would be dealing with crises after they have already begun, this should be no dilemma at all.

Say what one will about the United States, but it cannot be denied that its distinct religious heritage paved the way for unparalleled freedom of belief. Of course, there have been a few pitfalls; many of which persist to this very day.

However, no place is perfect, and as one not in the religious majority, I can proudly say that America is a shining example of how theological diversity can pay off in dividends.

Not too many people in too many countries can do the same, unfortunately.

This past election season was undoubtedly the most divisive in modern history. Let us, in this holiday season, put aside our partisan differences and focus on the one thing all sound minds should hold dear: The freedom to believe as each of us chooses without the yoke of competing medieval cathedrals dragging us in one direction or another — then slaying those who wish to go in no direction at all.

That merits no small measure of thankfulness.

Joseph Cotto, distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate. Joseph Cotto is a historical and social journalist, and writes about politics, economics and social issues. Email him at