Scott Douglas Gerber, a law professor at Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio, discusses the history of religious intolerance in the United States...
Among the Executive Orders that President Joe Biden issued mere hours after being inaugurated as the nation’s forty-sixth president was one repealing former President Donald Trump’s so-called Muslim ban that had placed stringent restrictions on travel to the United States for citizens of a number of majority Muslim countries. The opening sentence of President Biden’s January 20, 2021 Executive Order reads: “The United States was built on a foundation of religious freedom and tolerance, a principle enshrined in the United States Constitution.”
The nation’s first president almost certainly would have agreed with the nation’s new president. In an August 21, 1790 letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island President George Washington assured persons whose religious faith differed from his own that “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.” He added:
It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
Of course, it took a lot of time and effort for America to become a land of religious inclusion rather than exclusion. Four of the original English American colonies planted in what is now the United States were communities of exclusion rather than inclusion: Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts Bay Colony, Connecticut Colony, and New Haven Colony. They each endeavored to establish an ideal Bible commonwealth, and they each utilized law to try to do so. Indeed, on May 29, 1643 the four colonies entered into a confederation for the purpose of mutual defense. Their articles of confederation opened by proclaiming that the Gospel rightly understood was the animating principle of all four of the colonies: “Whereas we all came into these parts of America with one and the same end and aim; namely to advance the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ and to enjoy the liberties of the Gospel in purity with peace.”
To mention one additional example, the self-proclaimed “city upon a hill”—Massachusetts Bay—banished dissenters who did not subscribe to the colony’s dominant Puritan faith. Nay, more: if the dissenter refused to leave or left but subsequently returned, he or she would be tortured. An October 14, 1657 statute mandated that a male Quaker who returned to Massachusetts Bay could have “one of his ears cut off,” and if he entered the colony after that he could have “his other ear cut off” and after that he “shall” have his tongue bored through with a hot iron.” A recalcitrant female Quaker would not have either or both of her ears cut off, but she could be severely whipped and sent to the “house of correction.” However, like a male Quaker who entered the colony for a third time, a female Quaker could have her tongue bored through with a hot iron.
Obviously, former President Trump’s Muslim ban was not as draconian as Massachusetts Bay’s 1657 anti-Quaker law but, as President Biden correctly notes in his Executive Order, the Trump travel ban was “a stain on our national conscience” and “inconsistent with our long history of welcoming people of all faiths and no faith at all.”
Scott Douglas Gerber is a law professor at Ohio Northern University and an associated scholar at Brown University’s Political Theory Project. His forthcoming book is about law and religion in colonial America.
Suggested citation: Scott Douglas Gerber, To Bigotry No Sanction, To Persecution No Assistance, JURIST – Academic Commentary, January 26, 2021, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2021/01/scott-douglas-gerber-to-bigotry-no-sanction/.
This article was prepared for publication by Brianna Bell, a JURIST Senior Editor. Please direct any questions or comments to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.