The Roots Of Religious Oppression In Hands Of Individuals

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This article carries forward the tale of religious oppression that occurs when state and church are one. It also makes it perfectly clear that the horrors that occur when this happens must not be laid at the foot of religion, but are the acts of individuals.

Freedom, faith, and nation -- Part III

When our founding fathers wrote the Constitution, they were very concerned about religious freedom. That's why they made sure that the First Amendment left no doubt that our government was to keep its hands off religion.

The lessons of history were clear to them. Any time religious power and secular power fell into the same hands, the result was religious oppression.

Thirty-three hundred years ago a king named Akhenaten forced the Egyptian people to worship the sun, but our founding fathers did not have to look back that far in history to understand the lessons of history. Most of them were Christians, and that lesson is never far from the mind of any Christian.

A little over two thousand years ago a young man named Jesus came to Jerusalem preaching a gospel of love, forgiveness and redemption that clashed with the doctrine of the day. While the religious powers in Jerusalem did not control the government, they had the ear of the Roman governor. We all know what the result was.

Let's move a tiny bit closer to our own time, to the year 1231. In that year, Pope Gregory enacted the law that established the Inquisition. He ordered that heretics be seized and that trial by torture be used to draw confessions out of the accused. Since the church was not allowed to shed blood, sentenced heretics were surrendered to the secular authority, which executed them. A dark age began in the dual history of religion and government.

Now let's move even closer to our time, both in time and in geography, to England in 1533. Henry VIII, Catholic King of England, wished to divorce his wife so that he might sire a male heir. Having been refused by the pope, he created a new church of which he made himself head. He looted churches, closed monasteries and nunneries and confiscated church property. Soon, anyone who would not swear allegiance to Henry as head of his new religion, not as the king, was threatened with execution, and the threat was carried out. A period of religious persecution began which did not end for some people until they escaped across the sea to a land called America.

There are many, many examples of the same thing to be found, not just in the past, but today. The people of Iran, for example, once lived under a secular government that did not interfere with their beliefs, regardless of their religion. They now are an oppressed people, forced to live under the rule of religious fanatics. And, of course, there is the Taliban who ruled in Afghanistan until we went in there and cleaned out that nest of fanatics. And there are still places where it is worth your life to utter the wrong words or fail to act "correctly."

We need to stop here, however, to make a point, and to make it as strongly as we can. If we don't, we may be promoting a gross error of judgment. Where do we place the blame for all this? On religion? On some particular faith? On all faiths? No! Absolutely not! Nothing could be further from the truth. It is not religion that tortures and burns innocents, beats women who do not cover their faces, requires vows of loyalty on pain of death, and oppresses people; it is individuals. Akhenaten was an individual. Pope Gregory was an individual. Henry VIII was an individual. We must always keep that in mind, and not make the mistake of blaming religion for the actions of misguided individuals.

Everyone has heard the expression, "Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely," but few people know that it originated from the pen of a man who was studying religion. In 1887, Lord Acton, who wrote such books as "The History of Freedom in Antiquity" and "The History of Freedom in Christianity," wrote those words in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton.

Lord Acton was unquestionably correct. When both secular and religious power fall into the hands of the government, the result is inevitable - corruption, abuse, hatred, warfare, oppression and religious intolerance. Our founding fathers were wise enough to see that and to take steps to ensure that it would never happen here. That was the goal of the First Amendment.

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