Giving thanks for the first freedom

Sunday, November 24, 2002

A favorite New Yorker cartoon depicts two Pilgrims chatting on the deck of the Mayflower. “Religious freedom is my immediate goal,” says one, “but my long-range plan is to go into real estate.”

Now that’s a good American cartoon. From our beginnings, we have prized liberty as the gateway to prosperity. Not that most of the Pilgrims sought great wealth — they desired first and foremost to be a “separate people” living their faith purely in a New World far from the corruptions of the Old.

But even aboard the Mayflower in 1620 there were “strangers” in the midst of the “saints,” those who came as much or more for economic gain as for religious freedom. And back in England there were investors in the colony determined to see a good return on their money.

Out of this stew of mixed motives and high ideals, the Pilgrims forged a new society that would become America. While still offshore, they crafted an agreement to create a “civil body politic” — a compact for self-government that may be justly called the first American constitution.

What was missing from this noble vision? “Knit together as a body” meant little or no room for difference or dissent. The religious freedom they sought in new Plymouth was for themselves, but not for others — not even for dissenters within their own community.

But early on the Pilgrims discovered that no matter how far they might travel fleeing the worldly divisions and corruptions of England and Holland, they could not escape what it means to be human. Conformity in matters of faith is impossible to impose without conflict and bloodshed. Almost immediately, individualists spoke up and acted out, causing no end of trouble. And later other sects arrived in the wilderness — notably Baptists and Quakers — seeking freedom to worship God in their own way.

The first Thanksgiving itself — an event almost lost in myth — was a lesson in learning to live with deep differences. Held in 1621, only one year after the arrival of the Mayflower, half of the Pilgrims had already died — and the rest were struggling to survive the vicissitudes of disease and weather.

Fortunately, their crops that season “did prove well” and the native people (through the famous Squanto) aided rather than hindered them. (A treaty had been signed that was to last for half a century.) When they gathered for a day of thanksgiving with Chief Massasoit and his Indians, they had much to be grateful for.

The larger lesson of those first difficult decades is that constitutions are incomplete without protection for individual rights. Religious freedom cannot mean the freedom of the majority to impose the “true faith” on all members of the community. Religious liberty (as Roger Williams would instruct the Puritans 10 years later) is “soul liberty” — the inherent right of every individual to choose in matters of faith.

As the new nation grew in diversity and complexity, many of the first Americans took this lesson to heart. That’s why when the U.S. Constitution came to be written more than 150 years after the Mayflower Compact, George Mason of Virginia, among others, insisted that a Bill of Rights be added. Yes, we must be knit together as one nation (“We the People”). But we must simultaneously ensure that government may not interfere with fundamental, inalienable rights.

The first freedom listed? “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof… .” Why first? Because without freedom of conscience and freedom of the mind, no free speech, press, assembly or petition is possible.

Is it messy? Yes, America today is the most religiously diverse place on Earth — a crowded public square beyond the wildest dreams of those first Pilgrims. But religious freedom — however messy — has served religion well. After all, the United States begins the 21st century with a higher level of religious involvement and commitment among its people than may be found in any other developed nation.

The struggle for religious freedom in America remains unfinished — we have much work still to do. But on this day of Thanksgiving 2002, we can be truly grateful for how far we have come. Nearly four centuries after the Pilgrims arrived searching for religious freedom, America is home to the boldest and most successful experiment in religious liberty the world has ever seen.