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You go to your church; I'll go to mine

by Jim Elliott
| June 20, 2024 12:00 AM

A few years ago, I was talking with a man who raised an interesting question: “There’s only one God, why do we need so many different churches?”

I let that one slide right by because I like to limit my controversial discussions to politics, for better or worse. But I was curious as to why he belonged to the church he did and not another one of the some 200 Christian denominations in America. I didn’t raise that point, either.

Religion is a serious topic in America and has been ever since the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock in their quest to escape religious persecution in England. They may have escaped intolerance directed at their own beliefs, but they managed to develop a different type of religious intolerance of their own.

The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay banned the Puritan minister of Salem, Massachusetts, Roger Williams, from their colony because his religious beliefs didn’t comply with their beliefs. In 1636 Williams, who faced punishment, fled the Colony of Massachusetts Bay to what is now Rhode Island.

There, he bought land from the Narragansett Indians (whose language he spoke) and started his own church in 1638. That became The First Baptist Church in America. Williams believed that governments did not belong in religion and religion did not belong in government.

Most, if not all, groups of emigrants to the English colonies in North American came because of oppression of their particular religious beliefs – all Christian – in England. The official Church of England, the Anglican Church, would not allow those who were not members of that church to hold elective or appointed government office, just as Catholic France would not allow Protestants the right to hold government positions.

They were second class citizens. That’s what the immigrants to America were escaping.

While the immigrants were all Christians, some were apparently held to be less Christian than others. The Charter of the Massachusetts Bay colony in 1692 stated, “… [T]here shall be a Liberty of Conscience allowed in the worship of God to all Christians (except Papists) ….” Papists being Catholics. (The Complete Bill of Rights, Edited by Niel H. Cogan, Oxford University Press, 1997, page 21)

So, it should come as no surprise that the first clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution – the Establishment Clause – stated, “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The First Amendment was not intended to restrict religious beliefs in any way, quite the contrary. It was to protect religious practices from government control, and to facilitate this it implied that religions should not control government.

It was created to allow people to worship God according to the dictates of their conscience. This meant that people could not be coerced to worship God in compliance with the beliefs of other congregations, and that the authority of religious organizations should be limited to the members of those organizations and not be forced on others involuntarily.

In 1801, a congregation known as the Danbury Baptists, founded in 1790 in Connecticut, wrote to the newly elected President Thomas Jefferson. Their concern was that Connecticut had an official religion, Congregationalism, and therefore no “freedom of religion clause” was in their constitution.

The government levied taxes that supported the Congregationalist Church, and because the Baptists would not pay the tax, they were punished by the state of Connecticut. They wrote Jefferson to let him know of the situation but admitted that there was little he could do about it.

The letter said, “… what religious privileges we enjoy … we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights; and these favors we receive at the expense of such degrading acknowledgements as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen.” (see www.thedanburyinstitute.org)

Jefferson responded with a letter that said that there should be a “wall of separation between church and state,” which was a term originally used by Roger Williams.

Here is something to think about. If America were to have an official state religion, which of the 200 different Christian denominations in America should it be, other than your own?

My Church? Why you can find it in Matthew 6:6.

Montana Viewpoint has appeared in weekly and online newspapers across Montana for over 25 years. Jim Elliott served 16 years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.