BJC Fellows Reflections
Empowered by history
By Keisha I. Patrick
I first encountered Colonial Williamsburg on a three-mile jog through the town around 6 a.m. on the first full day of the BJC Fellows seminar. The AirPods in my ears, the iPhone in my running shorts, and the pounding of my tennis shoes against paved streets reassured me that I was not being transported back to a time when people cloaked in deep brown African skin like mine were considered three-fifths human, at best. Still, I felt that my surroundings had been designed to conjure a sense of nostalgia that I could not comfortably feel.
My trouble with 18th century Williamsburg is that its leaders demanded freedom for half of its population while denying the same freedom to the other half — others who looked like me. Throughout the BJC Fellows seminar, I was similarly troubled that 21st century America extends religious freedom to some of its population in word and deed but to others in word alone. For example, we discussed the Supreme Court’s recent decision to allow a state government to continue funding a gigantic cross, a Christian symbol, on public land. This ruling implicitly others taxpayers who choose religions with different sacred symbols or who choose no religion at all. We also discussed a new state law requiring public schools to prominently display the words “In God We Trust” on their walls. Such a law “others” students who exercise their freedom of conscience to choose no god or religion, or those whose god is called something other than the English “God.” Seeing those words daily could be tortuous for a child who is struggling with her beliefs or who feels pressure to believe differently than what she is being taught at home. The discomfort I felt on that first morning’s jog helped me to consider and empathize with the discomfort of others, particularly those who don’t identify as Christians in America.
Shortly after my morning jog through Colonial Williamsburg, I went on a guided tour of the town with the BJC Fellows. I was reminded that religious life in America began with the “othering” of people who didn’t adopt their Colony’s established religion. In Colonial Virginia, Baptists were the others. Baptists preachers faced beatings and imprisonment for exercising their faith instead of the Christian denomination that Virginia’s Colonial government had chosen. Our tour guides read to us the personal accounts of some persecuted Baptists and led us to replicas of the small, dark, brick prison cells where the persecuted were often confined. As a punishment, one white Baptist preacher was forced to witness the beatings of enslaved Africans who had been in his audience. There were layers to this governmental “othering.” Yet, it seemed to me that even Baptists were eligible for some of the privileges of colonial citizenship, but such privileges were utterly denied to persons identifying as Catholics or Jews. No concern was shown for the religious choices of the enslaved Africans, who constituted slightly more than half of Virginia’s population.
Despite Colonial America’s dehumanizing religious establishments, my week in Williamsburg made me hopeful that religious freedom can be achieved in America today. Through the reading of Endowed By Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America and a Q&A with the author, Michael Meyerson, during the Seminar, I was able to peek into 18th century America and glean some of the motivations and thoughts underlying the Founders’ approach to religious freedom. Meyerson’s historical research and findings show that many of the Founders were both devout Christians and deeply concerned about the dangers of state-sponsored religion. Meyerson’s work debunks modern claims that America was founded as a “Christian nation.” In fact, the plain language of the Constitution and its First Amendment show the Founders intent to ban religious tests for elected officials, prohibit state-sponsored religion and protect the free exercise of religion. Thus, the newly-birthed United States ratified constitutional promises purposed to prevent the “othering” of its citizens on the basis of religion.
I am an evangelical Christian, not in the political sense but in the belief that my faith in Jesus compels me to share the Gospel message with people who are willing to listen. I reject political evangelicalism that seeks to Christianize America through laws based on some Christians’ biblical interpretations and results in the “othering” of all who disagree. I have yet to find a Bible verse that mandates Jesus’ followers to win souls or communities through government action. The Jesus I follow instructed his disciples to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s. One of my major takeaways from the BJC Fellows Seminar is BJC Associate General Counsel Jennifer Hawks’ statement that any gospel that depends on government action is incapable of changing the world.
One of my core beliefs is that God created each human being in God’s image with intrinsic value and freedom of conscience. Religious freedom is based in freedom of conscience, and it provides liberty to choose one’s own god and religion or no god or religion at all. My BJC experience confirmed for me that denial of religious freedom to any person or group is a denial of freedom of conscience and, thereby, a form of dehumanization. It’s a way of saying to the other “you don’t belong” or “you’re less than human.” Such messages are incongruent with America’s assertion that all people are created equal with certain inalienable rights. Dehumanization almost always leads to violence, denial of freedom and rejection of full citizenship. It is the enduring guarantee of othering.
As the sun glazed over my skin during morning jogs through Colonial Williamsburg, my brown hue richened. I grew fond of the town because of the experiences I had as a BJC Fellow. But no sense of nostalgia for centuries past overcame me. Like my brown skin, the history of dehumanization there was deep. Yet, I found that Williamsburg holds hidden gems in America’s journey from Colonial religious establishments to constitutional religious freedom. This history empowers me to promote religious freedom for all.
For more from the 2019 class of BJC Fellows, visit BJConline.org/BJCFellows2019.